Past Issues of Government Technology

Web-Based GIS Boosts Development

The World Wide Web and GIS are helping the city of Oakland reinvent the way it stimulates economic development.

by / January 31, 1997 0
Like many large cities around the country, Oakland, Calif., competes with wealthier, development-hungry suburbs in terms of attracting businesses and jobs. For years, the permit process for developers in Oakland involved the usual round of phone calls and downtown visits with city departments to gather the necessary information.

Selecting sites for possible development was a similar process -- developers drove around the city to visit sites in person, and followed up with phone calls and research to determine whether zoning laws would allow their project to go forward. The slow, bureaucratic process did little to encourage new businesses to choose Oakland over the bustling Bay Area suburbs beyond the city's borders.

But now that is changing. The city's Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA) is slashing red tape to ribbons by merging the high-flying World Wide Web with an online permit system and mapping technology. Developers can now cruise the city from their desktop computers, search for parcels geographically using a Web browser, view the parcels from aerial photographs and look up zoning information.

"This new tool is a breakthrough," said Phil Tagami, a city planning commissioner and managing general partner for California Commercial Investments, a development firm. "As a developer, I used to feel like Indiana Jones when I went looking for zoning and development information in the city. What this technology does is put the necessary information right out there on the fly. You can now look and understand what the issues are."

Tagami said the technology has become a powerful tool for helping the city's planning commission make decisions based on accurate, up-to-date information. "When we're in a hearing and a developer who wants to put up a building says there is an adjacent lot for parking 28 cars, we can instantly call up the digital orthophoto of that parcel and see that it only holds six cars."

CULMINATING FACTORS
Oakland's trailblazing Web service is the culmination of several factors, including the 1991 hill fire, key investments in technology, the booming Internet and the vision of Frank Kliewer, CEDA's operations manager. To understand how Oakland accomplished such an effort, Kliewer says you have to go back to 1982 when the city's Planning and Building Department installed a permit tracking system.

The system replaced a blizzard of handwritten forms with IBM's AS/400 computer. In 1991, it helped the city speed up the rebuilding of homes following the disastrous fire of that year, and now it supports a host of features including a popular permit-by-fax service. While some may consider anything 14 years old a legacy system, the city recently upgraded the computer's operating system, which just happens to be Web-enabled. With a flip of a switch, CEDA was able to provide Web access to all the city's permit data.

The 1991 fire, which destroyed over 3,000 homes in the hills above Oakland, led the city to invest nearly $5 million in a geographic information system to help restore roads and utilities and to aid emergency management with preparing for any possible future disaster. Meanwhile, Kliewer quickly sized up GIS as a tool for distributing economic development information to the public in general and to developers in particular.

"Zoning is a real bottleneck in the economic development process," explained Kliewer. "A lot of time is wasted tracking down the right zoning information. Development projects can't move forward until they have the correct zoning information." In 1995, Kliewer met with the city's GIS team and was able to add zoning data to the base maps. Suddenly, staff and the public could click on electronic map parcels and get all the zoning information they needed.

In 1995, the city found out just how helpful the Internet could be when work began on rebuilding the Oakland Coliseum to prepare for the return of the Raiders, the National Football League franchise. Expected to be a three-year project, work was completed in nine months, thanks in part to the city's innovative use of the Internet to communicate with and transfer detailed plans between architects in Kansas City and engineers in Oakland.

Kliewer pointed out that, as exciting as these technological advancements were, they weren't going to improve business in Oakland on their own. "Technology doesn't bring change," said Kliewer, "unless you use it appropriately to serve a business practice." To foster actual change and improvements to Oakland's economic base, the city merged the Department of Planning and Building with the Economic Development, Housing and Redevelopment departments.

The mergers created CEDA, which has reengineered how the city supports economic development. "We can now offer the whole development picture from the standpoint of the community and the developers," Kliewer pointed out. "It has allowed us to focus on development by planning areas, not political boundaries."

DYNAMIC HTML
In 1996, Kliewer began working with his staff and vendors to assemble a dynamic Web site where the public and developers could find up-to-date economic data on the city at no cost, 24-hours a day. The Oakland Computer Company worked as general contractor on the project, identifying the data needed and developing the system that would run the service.

According to Mike Corse, vice president of Oakland Computer Co., his firm installed a TCP/IP network and Microsoft's NT Internet Information Server as the architecture for the Web application. Corse said the trick was building dynamic HTML pages based on maps from the UNIX-based ESRI software and zoning data from the DB2 databases on the AS/400. Using Web browsers, users would view data and maps that contain up-to-date, rather than static information.

Costs were held down by CEDA's use of software from Microsoft, which has been freely distributing its code for Internet components in order to build up market share over rival firm Netscape Communications. Corse estimates the savings at nearly $10,000.

Overall, Oakland Computer put in approximately 500 hours building a system architecture, 250 hours developing the application, and 100 hours setting up and installing the system. Kliewer did not give a total figure for the system's cost, but said expenses were kept low thanks to freeware and vendors' willingness to lend support to the innovative project.

Today, anyone can visit Oakland's Online Map Room, which is located on the Internet at , and view several layers of citywide economic data. A click on the map button brings a user to a page where parcels can be searched by address or parcel number. The query retrieves from the Internet server an image created from raw data, not pre-published maps. This approach allows CEDA to keep all information -- parcel boundaries, zoning information, property ownership, etc. -- current. Additional layers of information and spatial data can be plugged in as they become available.

"It's all point and click," said Commissioner Tagami. "You can get zoning and parcel data, the names and splits for each parcel, a digitized photo and any zoning regulation information for that area of the parcel." Tagami uses the site when he's preparing for a planning meeting or a meeting with a client. "I can use it on the weekends or at 2 a.m. in the morning," he added.

The Web site also has saved CEDA staff a tremendous amount of time, saving minutes off every phone query or office visit they must handle. Kliewer believes some staff were worried that the self-service system would put them out of a job, but instead it has freed them to handle higher-level tasks. "We find that with developers now answering many of the routine questions themselves, we can redeploy our staff to deal with more complex problems," said Kliewer. "Staff can use their interpretive and analytical skills instead of handling rote questions all the time."
ranchise. Expected to be a three-year project, work was completed in nine months, thanks in part to the city's innovative use of the Internet to communicate with and transfer detailed plans between architects in Kansas City and engineers in Oakland.

Kliewer pointed out that, as exciting as these technological advancements were, they weren't going to improve business in Oakland on their own. "Technology doesn't bring change," said Kliewer, "unless you use it appropriately to serve a business practice." To foster actual change and improvements to Oakland's economic base, the city merged the Department of Planning and Building with the Economic Development, Housing and Redevelopment departments.

The mergers created CEDA, which has reengineered how the city supports economic development. "We can now offer the whole development picture from the standpoint of the community and the developers," Kliewer pointed out. "It has allowed us to focus on development by planning areas, not political boundaries."

DYNAMIC HTML
In 1996, Kliewer began working with his staff and vendors to assemble a dynamic Web site where the public and developers could find up-to-date economic data on the city at no cost, 24-hours a day. The Oakland Computer Company worked as general contractor on the project, identifying the data needed and developing the system that would run the service.

According to Mike Corse, vice president of Oakland Computer Co., his firm installed a TCP/IP network and Microsoft's NT Internet Information Server as the architecture for the Web application. Corse said the trick was building dynamic HTML pages based on maps from the UNIX-based ESRI software and zoning data from the DB2 databases on the AS/400. Using Web browsers, users would view data and maps that contain up-to-date, rather than static information.

Costs were held down by CEDA's use of software from Microsoft, which has been freely distributing its code for Internet components in order to build up market share over rival firm Netscape Communications. Corse estimates the savings at nearly $10,000.

Overall, Oakland Computer put in approximately 500 hours building a system architecture, 250 hours developing the application, and 100 hours setting up and installing the system. Kliewer did not give a total figure for the system's cost, but said expenses were kept low thanks to freeware and vendors' willingness to lend support to the innovative project.

Today, anyone can visit Oakland's Online Map Room, which is located on the Internet at , and view several layers of citywide economic data. A click on the map button brings a user to a page where parcels can be searched by address or parcel number. The query retrieves from the Internet server an image created from raw data, not pre-published maps. This approach allows CEDA to keep all information -- parcel boundaries, zoning information, property ownership, etc. -- current. Additional layers of information and spatial data can be plugged in as they become available.

"It's all point and click," said Commissioner Tagami. "You can get zoning and parcel data, the names and splits for each parcel, a digitized photo and any zoning regulation information for that area of the parcel." Tagami uses the site when he's preparing for a planning meeting or a meeting with a client. "I can use it on the weekends or at 2 a.m. in the morning," he added.

The Web site also has saved CEDA staff a tremendous amount of time, saving minutes off every phone query or office visit they must handle. Kliewer believes some staff were worried that the self-service system would put them out of a job, but instead it has freed them to handle higher-level tasks. "We find that with developers now answering many of the routine questions themselves, we can redeploy our staff to deal with more complex problems," said Kliewer. "Staff can use their interpretive and analytical skills instead of handling rote questions all the time."

In the near future, CEDA hopes to add several enhancements, including a demographic search engine, an improved interface and a parcel permit history database. Query options will expand to cover parcel status, parcel size, zoning status and distance of parcel from freeways, fiber-optic lines and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.

Kliewer, who hopes to publish a "cookbook" for other jurisdictions interested in building similar Web sites, sees the ongoing project as the ultimate fulfillment of the city's role to taxpayers. "We're the custodians of these records, but they belong to the public," he explained. "It's our obligation to provide the most efficient access to the records as possible." Judging by the overwhelming response to the system so far, Kliewer has made public access as efficient as it gets.

*
SOLUTION SUMMARY
PROBLEM/SITUATION: Oakland wants to stimulate economic development while making public records more accessible.

SOLUTION: The city put valuable zoning, planning and permit information into an Internet-based geographic information system.

JURISDICTION: Oakland, Calif.

VENDORS: Oakland Computer Co., Microsoft, Netscape, IBM, ESRI, California Commercial Investments.

CONTACT: Frank Kliewer, CEDA, .




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