Though Rowlett, Texas, has a population of just 53,000, it has an interactive online map that puts many larger municipalities to shame. Want crime statistics, building footprints, property for sale or sex offender data? Come and get it.

Krishna Veeragandham, the city's assistant director of development services, helped build the site, and even he admits it is an anomaly. "Normally smaller cities don't have that level of funding or even that level of need to run such a robust system," he said.

The secret weapon of Rowlett's online map is iCommunities, an ambitious GIS initiative by the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), a state-sponsored entity charged with aiding development efforts in about 250 communities. The project uses the council's GIS expertise to bring local government data to life with interactive, customizable maps that mesh with existing municipal Web sites. NCTCOG generates maps using ESRI's GIS software, which already was in use within the organization when iCommunities launched in 1999.

"It's taking information about a specific jurisdiction and providing that information across the Web for use by employees of that organization, and also by citizens of that area," said Mick Maguire, research and information services program manager at NCTCOG.

In the big picture, iCommunities serves several needs for both large and small municipalities. It provides a template that makes assembling maps quick and easy, and it takes the maintenance burden off the jurisdictions, since NCTCOG hosts, maintains and updates iCommunities data. Perhaps most significantly, it dramatically reduces the cost of creating and running a rich GIS site.

The agency charges a municipality $8,800 to create a basic iCommunities site or $14,000 if the site includes in-depth economic development information. Annual upkeep costs $4,800 for the basic site, $6,000 with the economic development upgrade, or $7,200 with economic development and detailed crime data.

Casey Gardner, enterprise GIS manager for Dallas, calls it a bargain.

"We're paying what we consider a very small amount of money to have this information out there," said Gardner.

Prior to joining iCommunities in 2002, Dallas operated its own map site, a rudimentary interface displaying such basics as libraries and council districts. Security was a headache, with constant care needed as data left the city and went out into the wide world of the Internet. "There are just a ton of issues you encounter when you start publishing this kind of information," Gardner said.

When he takes into account the software, hardware, maintenance and staff time he would need to host an interface as rich as iCommunities, Gardner knows he is coming out ahead. "It would take at least one person to manage that site," he said. "And I promise you, that person would spend at least half their time working on it."

For the bargain price, Dallas gets not only a rich data set in its maps, but also a GIS page that looks like all the city's other Web pages. As part of the iCommunities template, map pages are built to incorporate existing visual elements within a site to ensure a seamless user experience.

GIS Bang for the Buck
The 30 municipalities, counties and special districts using iCommunities get more than just pretty maps to show constituents. They receive in-depth, interactive visuals that cover a surprising range of local data.

On a base level, visitors to most iCommunities sites see libraries, fire stations, schools, subdivisions and parcels. This data serves the public and also helps officials do their jobs. As zoning requests come up before a city council, for instance, iCommunities makes it easier to present those proposed changes

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer