Shared GIS Helps Texas Cities Create Rich Online Maps

Texas cities get GIS for less.

by / February 14, 2008
GIS for Less

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

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.

Keeping Up-to-Date
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.

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide. 

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