February 14, 2008 By Adam Stone
to council members and citizens.
Cities can choose to pack their sites with other GIS layers, such as crime statistics. Users can choose to populate a map with icons marking the locations of thefts, robberies, murders and other dark deeds. A separate option flags the homes of registered sex offenders.
For sensitive data, planners have the option of password-protecting the site so the public can't access some iCommunities layers. Even within city offices, access can be restricted to only those employees with a need to know.
This password protection is a key element in at least one component of iCommunities: infrastructure. City officials are well served by a site that maps water mains, power conduits and other crucial data, but heightened national security suggests that the information isn't widely available. Here again, municipal leaders can cordon off that section of the site.
While most iCommunities information comes from the cities, some comes from NCTCOG's own collection, especially data that crosses city limits or spans an entire region. "It's things like the live weather radar - things that go beyond the data - that is particularly ours," Gardner said.
Some of iCommunities' most significant work comes in the form of specialized economic development maps. These go well beyond the typical municipal charts and graphs.
One example is the Dallas map site. Detailed economic development data includes the layout of the city's instrument manufacturing industry, positions of food processing plants and distribution businesses, and the breakdown of tax-increment financing districts.
Those detailed offerings help the city fulfill its public obligation. "It allows the public and the business community to answer questions more efficiently, to do their jobs and to make better, more informed decisions," Gardner said.
Since 2002, visitors to the Dallas site have generated approximately 11 million maps.
Three people work on iCommunities at NCTCOG. Working across jurisdictional lines, these staffers maximize not only their high-level data, but also the shared expertise and the interests of their member communities.
"The beauty of this program is that once somebody comes up with an idea, [NCTCOG] staff will spend a bunch of time developing that code," Veeragandham said, "and all the cities can use that code across the board."
For example, NCTCOG built an economic development module that gives planners the ability to tap into real estate databases and also connect to appraisal district data, which helps identify residents at a given address. That's helpful for public works needs and for disseminating public hearing information.
Despite iCommunities' appealing features, it's not a perfect system. Because iCommunities managers look for enhancements that will benefit the greatest number of users, some changes are pushed to the back burner.
"The major hurdle we have to get over is the realization that this is a shared system for the cities," Maguire said. "Whenever we are out there talking about the advantages in this program, drawing on the combined knowledge of all these other entities, [municipalities] need to know they also need to make sacrifices. This is not a 100 percent fully customized version of your Web site."
For iCommunities' smallest users - some cities have populations of 10,000 people - this drawback is a worthwhile price to pay for a site that's far more robust than whatever they might have built on their own.
In addition to new features, iCommunities users also can request ongoing updates to their data. Veeragandham revises parcel data once every six months and aerial photographs once per year. Cities can submit data manually in a batch upload or arrange for the iCommunities system to submit regular queries and pull in new information when data changes.
The updates are easy. The data covers an array of municipal and citizen concerns. Users don't have to worry about maintenance. It costs far less than an in-house effort does. As cross-jurisdiction initiatives go, it's not hard to see why iCommunities continues to build a cadre of loyal users among its north central Texas constituency.
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