Filling the Bill

Subscription Web-based service allows smaller governments to take advantage of GIS without paying a fortune.

by / March 2, 2005
Traditional wisdom about GIS is that its significant benefits come at a prohibitive cost for many small cities or agencies. The price of hardware and software is just the beginning. When staff costs and procurement of geographical data are factored in, developing the geographical database can account for 60 percent to 80 percent of the total GIS deployment costs.

Moreover, GIS has little value if insufficient resources are devoted to planning and managing the system, keeping the data maintained and current, and developing applications for end-users who work routinely with the system as part of their jobs.

Add to this the inevitable need for training -- sophisticated systems require specialized manpower with GIS skills and training for other users as well. All this adds up to a simple fact: It generally takes a GIS department in an agency or city to make GIS a valuable proposition.

Easy Does It
That conventional wisdom is being challenged, however, by Digital Map Products (DMP), a company based in Costa Mesa, Calif., which developed CityGIS, a GIS platform accessible through the Internet with a simple browser interface.

Today, more than 60 local governments and agencies use CityGIS applications because they allow smaller entities to use GIS without large investments in infrastructure or staff.

San Juan Capistrano, Calif., uses CityGIS for both engineering and planning public counters.

"It has made my job a lot easier," said Irene Marcote, the city's engineering technician who works the engineering counter. "People at the counter are impressed with the system. We can do a query online -- select a sewer line for instance -- click on the information button, and up comes a hyperlink to the actual plans scanned in as TIFF files.

"We can then print that out, as well as any pictures, and give this right over the counter," Marcote said. "If I had to do that without using this product, I would be going back and forth, finding the plans, pulling them, and then having to run a blueprint or something, then taking it back and putting it away. Without doubt, it is a timesaver."

Marcote is one of several people maintaining information in the city's system. "Maintaining is not a full-time job," she said. "It's basically a small project in your day. You may not do anything for a week or a month, and then all of a sudden, you've got this information."

When new information arrives, she said, city staff sends it electronically to the company, where staff update the map.

Using this approach, San Juan Capistrano developed layers for sewer, water, streetlights and different city facilities on top of street, parcel data and aerial photography.

"Another thing we really like about CityGIS as we continue to grow is that the company is very versatile," said Marcote. "We can send another set of scanned items, another set of digital items, or something we created in a desktop ESRI GIS program, and the company will create a layer for us."

Done Dirt Cheap
"We offer GIS applications as a service using the ASP [application service provider] model," explained Steve Stautzenbach, vice president of sales and marketing for Digital Map Products

Stautzenbach said the company's clients include many midsize suburban cities along the West Coast that can't afford the classic GIS approach of putting the hardware, software and staffing in-house.

CityGIS is a subscription-based service that includes several data layers. "Because of limited resources, many clients are data-challenged," said Stautzenbach. "As part of the subscription, we also develop partnerships with counties and commercial providers of data to provide a city or agency with a complete solution -- our application plus a lot of the base map data they need to get started: streets, land parcel graphics, aerial photography, property ownership data. We take care of all the data management on all this base map stuff and keep that updated as part of a subscription."

Open System
Rather than relying on any single big GIS vendor, the application's core consists of software built by the company itself.

"We are not an Intergraph, Autodesk or ESRI platform," Stautzenbach said. "We are an open GIS system using a common vocabulary for all map files."

As CityGIS matured, the company brought greater functionality to the application. First came full map navigation through the browser interface offering full dynamic zooming, map panning, map views that highlight a specific portion of the map currently displayed, and extensive query capabilities.

After that came markup tools that turned the application into a collaborative tool, allowing users to grab any portion of a map, mark it up and e-mail it to colleagues so they can add their contribution and send it on.

CityGIS5 includes a transaction engine that lets clients create and maintain geo-data via their browser interface. Using the company's ThemeActive layers, a department can create, edit, maintain and import map-based data, such as addresses, trees, signs, improvement projects, National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System reporting and parcel notes.

"This is especially useful for a lot of the point layer stuff government clients want to track and maintain on the map," noted Stautzenbach. "The list of subjects a government agency might want to incorporate on the map gets very long. Specific users in that agency can edit and maintain that data right through our application, rather than having to outsource it or develop in-house GIS skill sets to provide the data in bulk.

"Every agency does projects," he continued. "Our ThemeActive project improvement layer allows them to step into the CityGIS5 application, identify where a project is, and start to track and maintain everything related to that project through their GIS system."

Because CityGIS is based on open application program interfaces, clients have worked with Digital Map Products to create whole workflow-automation environments. However, for a smaller city or agency, it's often a big step forward to simply access a lot of basic project information through the map, such as documents, photos or project files.

Affordable Alternative
Westminster, Calif., was one of the company's first government clients. "Since we are a smaller city and we don't have enough money to have our own GIS department, it's a good tool," said Rodi Almenbralo, a city civil engineer who oversees the engineering portion of Westminster's system, which is mainly used for property information and accessing county parcel maps. The company regularly updates most of this data, as well as the aerial photography, as part of the city's subscription, but Almenbralo said it allows for customization as well.

"It's like a GIS system because you can customize it to your own city by putting your own layers and data on it. If you take the cost into consideration, it is a lot cheaper than having your own GIS department," he said. "If a city wants GIS but doesn't want to spend all the money required to start a GIS department, CityGIS is a good thing to look into."
Blake Harris Contributing Editor