Oregon County Clicks With Objects-Based GIS

Since their inception, geographic information systems have often sat on the periphery of traditional systems development. And for good reason: They are generally expensive, complex and proprietary. But times have changed. Advances in mapping and database technology are paving the way for widespread use of GIS throughout state and local governments. Costs have come down, ease of use has gone up and integration with standard programming tools has helped ease GIS into the office mainstream. A case in point is Clackamas County, Ore. Already the largest of three Portland metropolitan counties, officials predict 40 percent of the state's population growth will occur in the county in the next 20 years, adding more than 100,000 residents. The anticipated boom is serving as a wake-up call for two county departments in particular: the Department of Utilities and the Department of Transportation and Development, where keeping track of land use with predominately manual methods was becoming unmanageable.

"We needed to do our job with less personnel, we needed to do it better, and we needed to be able to keep up with the growth we were experiencing," said Rick Schulte, the GIS coordinator for Clackamas County's Department of Utilities. "We had to do something, and it was definitely a time when it was economically and physically feasible to do a conversion."

Last year the two departments pooled their resources. With the help of a consultant, GeoNorth Inc., Anchorage, Alaska, and MapObjects software from Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI), Redlands, Calif., they developed a GIS in just a few months that enabled county users and the public to access multiple databases across the government from a common platform.

The benefits are, well, all over the map. Instead of sifting through reams of paper maps to look up zoning information, sewer lines, property records and school districts, all the maps and related information are accessible from a network of desktop computers. The system also has drastically cut the time it takes to answer questions from county employees or the developers, engineers and residents who pose questions from the front counter. Moreover, it has improved the accuracy of information that customers receive: different maps can now be overlayed, taking out guesswork that occurred in the past.

"It's amazing. For some people who deal with maps and tax assessor information, tasks that would typically take two hours can be done in 10 minutes," Schulte said. "Some things that could never be done are now being accomplished by people with little or no technical experience."

While no one has calculated the system's overall savings, it runs on existing hardware at a cost 10 times less than prior generations of ESRI software. What's more, improvements in productivity will allow many departments that use the system to reduce or at least stabilize headcount. Even more savings are anticipated when an Internet version of the application goes online soon-making 90 percent of the original application's functionality accessible to anyone with a World Wide Web browser.

The Problem

In 1995, the need for a GIS was clear. In the Department of Utilities alone, about 1,500 engineering drawings, called asbuilts, of the sanitary sewer and storm collection systems resided on paper or Mylar in large, flat-file drawers. Field maintenance crews were reduced to lugging big boxes of microfilm in their trucks and using magnifying scopes on the microfilm to determine pipe locations, sizes and depths. "A lot of the time, when they got called out for emergencies, it was nighttime," Schulte said. "And here they are, in the headlight of the truck, trying to read this microfilm."

The decision to go digital meant that maps could be kept up to date more readily, and technicians could view them from laptops in the truck. So the department decided to buy ESRI's Arc/Info software-a predecessor of MapObjects already used in some county locations-and a Sun Microsystems Inc. Unix workstation. For six months they worked to incorporate existing parcel maps, some of which were already in digital form.

While the department was then able to see its entire system on one map for the first time, it hit a roadblock in its vision to put the system in front of everyone in the county. At the time, the only customizable desktop option was another ESRI product, ArcView, but its cost and system requirements were prohibitive. At $1,000 a seat, ArcView could not be widely deployed, and the county's 16-bit environment couldn't deliver the performance. So the department held off major development until an alternative surfaced.

Enter GeoNorth, which specializes in GIS. At a users' group conference in early 1996, GeoNorth demonstrated a pre-release version of MapObjects that promised to lift the county's cost and performance objections. At first, the county was reluctant to go with an unproven product, but the ability to customize the interface using MapObjects and Microsoft Corp.'s Visual Basic programming environment was too hard to resist. So was the $100-per-seat price.

"We didn't see anything we couldn't do, the cost of development was the same or better than with ArcView, the performance was better, and the cost per client was dramatically decreased," Schulte said.

Meanwhile, Schulte found that Clackamas County GIS manager Dave Figueroa was working with the county Department of Planning on similar GIS projects, setting the stage for collaboration. The Department of Utilities had funds at the time of initial development, while the GIS folks had tax data and other existing data sets. "We had the funding and the resources available, and Dave had a lot of the data and the expertise to help, so it was a real good mix," Schulte said. Maintenance of the system is now shared among the utilities, planning and GIS departments.

The Technology

After pulling together a prototype in two weeks, GeoNorth was given the go-ahead to develop MoClack, or MapObjects Clackamas County. Using MapObjects — which provides programmable Object Linking and Embedding objects that let developers add maps to their applications — the team developed a custom client/server GIS running in Windows NT and Windows 95. The intuitive Windows interface displays a Utilities tab, for example, to access utilities maps and information, and a "Taxlot" tab to query the county's tax assessor database. The system is scalable, and other departments will be added, such as Health and Human Services.

With MapObjects, which includes templates and sample applications, development has gone smoothly. "A lot of the time it's been in time and under budget, so we've had extra time where we've actually been able to go in and make more enhancements than we had originally scoped," Schulte said.

Such attributes are helping GIS applications come in from the hinterland. "One of the big things that kept it out there, in addition to its cost and the exotic nature of the data, was connectivity to external databases," said Mike Quetel, senior software engineer at GeoNorth's Portland office. "MapObjects is a plug-in toolkit that gives you independence in choosing what development environment you use, so you're able to leverage the best of both worlds."

Now, from about 200 Pentium PCs, county employees can search the entire 130,000-record tax assessor database via name, address or taxlot number. Previously, the database existed only on a proprietary Unisys system, accessible by only two or three people in the assessor's department. Users now can also go to the Utilities tab and search the entire 15,000-customer database, overlay sewer pipe drawings, click on a pipe and see a raster image of the asbuilt for that pipe and then print everything.

When there's a change to a map, the information is entered into the system and replicated across three Windows NT servers: one at the Department of Utilities, a second at the treatment plant and a third at the Department of Planning. In the past, new maps were printed, copied and driven to each department. While it is not easy to maintain information across three servers, such duplication is necessary because the T-1 lines that the county uses are not robust enough to haul such mammoth data sets. The upside is redundancy in case of failure.

The Results

For the public, the time savings have been dramatic. People interested in building a house often come to the front counter wanting to know if sewer service is available, what the zoning, tax and police districts are for the property, and whether the property is in a flood plain. "Normally, you'd have to go to five agencies or more to get this information, and now it's pretty much available anywhere," Schulte said. If a person can call up instead, customer service staff can answer such questions immediately rather than calling back after they pull the information.

"In the past, if someone gave an address, we would have to go through all those maps and try to figure out where it is," said land use planner Linda Price. "Now we can put in an address, and it'll pop up a map and show us exactly the zoning and the information we need about it."

And the information is consistent. Interpretation of information is minimized by using overlays. For example, aerial photographs can be used as a backdrop, and layers of data can be placed atop it, making the relationship among sewers, taxlots, zoning and contours much clearer. MoClack even offers accompanying descriptions in text. "The ability to deliver data quickly has improved, and the lack of interpretation necessary for the map data improves the consistency of the data reported," Quetel said. "Nothing upsets the public more than to be at a counter one week and get one piece of information and [then] get conflicting information the next."

"When we got to even a beta stage, it was obvious we were surpassing even our wildest estimates on how much time we were going to save," Figueroa added. MoClack also has the unexpected benefit of helping to uncover flaws in the base data. "We're now exposing the GIS data to probably 10 times the amount of people, so we're getting more feedback in places where it's not as accurate or complete as we would like it to be," Figueroa added.

"That has probably been our biggest challenge, to provide accurate and up-to-date data," Schulte said. "As important as the interface is, the data-maintenance procedures and policies definitely need to go hand in hand with the application." The irony is that while MoClack is eliminating the need to add employees in some departments, it's being used to justify more staff to maintain the data, Figueroa added.

Since its original form, MoClack has been expanded to include a customer complaint-tracking module that is improving resource allocation. When a customer calls in with a problem, the complaint is entered into the database, attached to a map and assigned to a technician to resolve it. The technician is notified by e-mail and can bring up that map to research and perhaps resolve the problem before even setting out to investigate. There's also an Executive Information System written in Visual Basic that lets managers query the database and bring back reports showing, for example, how many inspectors are out there, how many complaints they've been assigned and how many complaints have been resolved.

The Department of Utilities has received requests from the board of county commissioners and the Department of Roads, to name a few, which would also like to use the program to track its complaints.

MoClack also is being used in unforeseen ways. A property management group is using the system to accelerate taxlot document preparation for auction participants, while code enforcement staff are using it make sure land use restrictions are followed. "It's opened up more interest in what GIS has made available here than I ever expected," Figueroa said.

The Future

In fact, so much interest is being generated by MoClack that it's impossible to meet every request or idea to use the system. And none of the departments involved is in the business of selling and supporting software. The solution? The Internet.

Even with its low cost — MoClack cost about $30,000, with additional modules at $10,000 — there are still costs associated with managing client software and providing the PCs and networks to support a 32-bit environment. So GeoNorth was tapped again to use ESRI's MapObjects Internet Map Server to open up MoClack to anyone with a Web browser.

"Now the data can be housed and maintained centrally on our server, there's no client application to maintain, and performance is extremely good; you can use it from T-1 down to a 28.8 [kilobits/sec] modem," Schulte said. The development cost: $20,000.

However, after a fiasco when Oregon's motor vehicles database wound up on the Internet, the county is being cautious. "There is concern about the anonymity of our taxpayers and [about] being able to search on an owner's name and displaying parcels of land," Schulte said. "What we're proposing is the ability to search by taxlot number or address and not allow the display or searching of owner names. I think if we can mask off those abilities, we'll be able to display it to the public."

Other ideas also are on tap, including a proposal to add a module for building permits. But officials are wary of overloading MoClack, so they plan to develop MapObjects applications independently of the system.

"The cost/benefit we see is the quality and the timeliness in which we're able to serve our customers and the public. There's a lot of value that you can't put dollars on," Schulte said.

But it's easy to measure MoClack's success through the praise of taxpayers. "The MapObjects program is really going to level the playing field for citizens that don't have a big financial stake in a new development," said Steve Berliner, volunteer director of Friends of Kellog and Mt. Scott Creeks Watershed. "Our financial stake is what we stand to lose in the value of our properties, and this program is going to put professional tools at our fingertips."

Jane Morrissey is a free-lance writer based in Denver.

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