Monumental Improvement

As genealogists turn to the Web to research public cemetery gravesites, city clerk's staff can devote more time to other tasks.

by / December 26, 2006

Many local governments use GIS to locate the homes of people living in their jurisdictions. Now Nampa, Idaho, is also using GIS to locate the final homes of its nonliving residents.

As of November 2006, Nampa's Department of Information Systems was putting the finishing touches on a Web-accessible map database of gravesites in the city's cemetery. The database will let users find information on individuals buried in the public cemetery, view their gravesites on aerial photographs and look at pictures of their headstones.

The main purpose of the Web application is to help genealogists, who traditionally call the city clerk's office for gravesite information and location. The online system will give researchers more details than they could get on the phone and will save time for city employees.

In the past, a genealogist would call the Department of City Clerk with questions about one or more individuals. "We would give them all the information we had, which would generally be how much they paid for the space, when the space was purchased, who the funeral home was and when they were buried," said Diana Lambing, the city clerk. "Of course, they were often wanting more information than that."

Responding to these calls took time away from other tasks. "We could spend up to 20 or 30 minutes, or even longer if we had someone calling with a long list of names," Lambing recalled, adding that sometimes, she and her staff searched paper records for information that wasn't in the database. They also had to get creative with spellings.

Weeks might go by without an inquiry, Lambing said, but if several calls came in the same day, city staff could spend hours helping them.

When a genealogist wanted to physically see a grave, that meant extra work for the cemetery sexton. "He would have to take them out there, pull out his maps and show them where it was," said Rod Collins, GIS manager in the Nampa Engineering Department.

In summer 2005, Lambing asked the information systems director in Medford, Ore., about his city's use of GPS and GIS technology to plot gravesite locations. Medford had created an internal database of locations for staff use.

Nampa was already using GPS in other applications, such as mapping trees in public parks, Lambing said. If the city created a map database of the cemetery, she added, her department could put it out on the Web, and people could do their own genealogy research. "And they could pull up a picture of the headstone and get a feel for what it looks like without having to go out."

Matching Photos, Coordinates
Nampa's Department of Information Systems worked with GeoEngineers, its GIS consulting firm since 2002, to develop the application. Jay Young, a GIS technician for the city, used a Trimble GeoXT GPS receiver, loaded with the cemetery database, and ArcCAD software from ESRI to collect a geographic coordinate for each gravesite.

He also photographed each grave marker, using a digital camera. Then, using GPS-PhotoLink software from GeoSpatial Experts of Thornton, Colo., and a script created by GeoEngineers, he ran a routine to link data about each site to its geographic coordinates and the photo. GeoEngineers then developed the online presentation.

Young collected data on 300 to 500 sites per day, taking 12,000 photos in all. As of November 2006, about 5,000 of them had been processed and added to the database.

GPS-PhotoLink uses the time stamps on the GPS device's track log and the digital photo to match each site to its photo. "As long as you've got the GPS in the right spot when you take the picture, GPS-PhotoLink creates a point file with that picture's name and the position," Collins said, adding that if a full-blown GIS system isn't available, the software can use Google Maps to display the data point.

GeoEngineers used the Microsoft.NET framework and ESRI's ArcIMS software to develop the Web-based application, said Blair Deaver, senior GIS analyst/programmer for the GeoEngineers applied technology team in Bend, Ore. "We're also using SQL Server to store the nonspatial data."

When the site goes live on the Web, any user will be able to query the database by name; date of birth, death or burial; or by section, lot or space number.

Not many governments have implemented similar applications, but the idea has attracted interest. Deaver put together a presentation on the Nampa project at a conference in 2006.

"There were a lot of GIS folks who said, 'We really want to do the same thing,'" he said, including people from city governments and Native American tribal governments.

Linda Bobbitt, vice president of GeoSpatial Experts, said the company has received inquiries from several other local governments.

The Medford Experience
In 2002, GeoEngineers developed a similar application for a cemetery managed by Medford, which at the time had no database for its gravesites.

"It was all handled in one person's head and the few notes he kept," said Keith Aeschliman, project manager in the city's Technology Services Department.

Medford had GeoEngineers develop a database and GIS system, linked to photos of the headstones for internal use. Staff use it for information they need to sell plots and to field genealogists' inquiries.

The city hasn't put the information on the Web, but that move could come soon. City programmers will probably rewrite the application within the next year, using newer software from ESRI, Aeschliman said. "When we do that, that's when we're likely to go public with it."

In Nampa, once the Web-based application goes live and word gets out to genealogists, that should reduce calls to the city clerk's department, although people are still welcome to call if they need extra help, Lambing said.

The city clerk's department could also use the Web site to show available gravesites to prospective buyers, she said. Funeral homes could use it to locate available spaces, and monument makers to find the right location when they need to place a stone. The city might give those professionals access to data that's not available to the general public, she said.

A side benefit of the project is that it gave the city clerk's department a good audit of gravesites in the cemetery, Collins said. "They found spaces that used to be unavailable, because of an old irrigation ditch that is no longer in use."

Linking geographic coordinates to photos might also prove useful in other corners of the city government, such as the Waterworks Division. When department staff install equipment, they may have to work around the facilities of numerous other utilities, Collins said, recalling a recent project.

"They said it would have been nice, when the trench was open, to take a picture of how all that was put in, so if they ever had to go back and do some work, they'd know what they were getting into," Collins said, noting that staff could link the photo in a database to that particular intersection and add data on the facilities they installed.

There has also been talk about using the software to inventory street signs, Collins said. "I'm sure there are lots of ideas we haven't even thought of."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs