Michigan Communities Launch Largest Regional GIS

Defying both inertia and politics, 21 towns and counties in western Michigan have decided to band together to share the expenses-and potential benefits-of developing what could become the largest regional geographic information system in the country.

The $15 million project, expected to take three years to complete, will enable the small local-government participants to tap a much deeper reservoir of digital geographic information than they possibly could develop separately. It also means the communities-located along Michigan's Grand River Valley-will save big bucks by spreading system development costs over many jurisdictions. It was an idea that was almost too far ahead of its time. In 1992, government executives in Kent County, Mich., noticed that much of the information needed in a GIS crossed the arbitrary political boundaries that divided the communities of the valley. Yet these communities also were connected by highway, electrical, water and sewer systems, as well as by the people who lived in one town and worked in another.

To explore the requirements and benefits of creating a common GIS for the region, the county hired a GIS consultant, Englebrook, Colo.-based Convergent Group. One figure from the consultant's 1994 report stood out: $55 million in savings over 15 years. But the proposal still languished for two years as individual supporters left positions of influence in the governments of the region. Some communities tried to hang tough. "The city of Grand Rapids didn't want to give up on a regional GIS," said Kurt Kimball, its city manager. "A lot would be sacrificed by staying with a standalone GIS.... We would have higher costs, and functions would be compromised."

In the meantime, the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council, a forum for the local governments to discuss issues of mutual interest, had grown in strength, members and effectiveness. It also provided the infrastructure needed to get a multiple-participant GIS system off the ground. In 1996 the council formed the Regional GIS (Regis) agency to coordinate the effort. With the council in place to prod participants, the second time was the charm. "The infrastructure for cooperation was in place," Kimball said. "The existence of that council of governments was crucial to keeping all of the participants on the same page."

One of the council's first decisions was to forgo a second selection process and to offer a contract to Convergent, which had done the original research project, to develop the GIS. The council stayed with Convergent because the company had done a good job on the report and had maintained good relations with the local governments even after the original plan became dormant. "They felt Convergent had performed well, so [the firm was] asked to do an updated report," said Sharon Steffens, chairwoman of the Regis board of directors and supervisor of the township of Alpine, Mich.

Convergent's update showed that the initial report was still true: A regional GIS would save money and improve citizen services. It also showed that in the years since the initial report, the fall in PC prices, the increase in PC computing power and the rise of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT as an operating system meant that costs would be lower than originally forecast. "Losing this time had benefits," Steffens said. "The technology improved, and costs went down."

The intervening time also helped strengthen the council, which gave the project the political power necessary to make the project happen. "One of the benefits of taking this long is that we have many more communities in the project," Steffens said. The total has reached 21 participants, and with a greater quantity of information, the quality of the subsequent analysis improves. "We expect benefits because of the greater accuracy from the additional information we will get," Steffens said.

"All the reasons to build a GIS are magnified when you have a regional GIS," said Eric Frazier, Regis project director for Convergent. "We believe this is the highest number of active participants who have banded together for a [multiple-participant] GIS."

The valley's regional GIS efforts will work only if the members' common interests override their individual circumstances. Regis will mirror that pattern. An example: Grand Rapids will use Regis to promote development and attract businesses to the city. But Alpine Township plans to use Regis to fend off suburbanization and to preserve farmland. In other words: one system, 21 agendas.

--Dan Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.

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The Regis Pilot: Seven Governments, Nine Square Miles

To test the capabilities of a geographic information system that will service 21 governments spread over 850 square miles, the Regional GIS (Regis) agency is conducting a limited pilot using a handful of governments situated in a nine-square-mile area.

The pilot is scheduled to be finished in August, and it will give participants a taste of the applications that will be available. When the GIS is fully operational in three years, the network will have 15 to 20 servers and 200 to 250 workstations. The pilot incorporates four 300 MHz Pentium II servers running Microsoft Corp. Windows NT Server, with 20G hard drives and 256M of RAM connected on an Ethernet local-area network to 35 300 MHz Pentium II workstations with 6G hard drives and 128M of RAM running Windows NT Workstation. Compaq Computer Corp. supplies all the PC hardware. Power users will get 21-inch monitors on their workstations, and the rest will have 17-inch displays.

Included in the pilot are seven Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. ARCview 3.0a applications, the most fundamental of which is a GIS data browser that will give users access to all the data contained in the GIS. The other six applications will be hung on that browser capability. Next is a standard map-generation application that lets users create maps displaying the information they are studying and print them on one of the 10 large-scale plotters on the network. Until now, the chore had been farmed out to pricey professional-services firms.

Key to the pilot project is the integration of property and tax information and applications to provide the local governments access to some of their most basic functions. "The group didn't want to see five interfaces to five packages extracting data from mainframes," said Eric Frazier, Regis project director for Convergent Group. This integrated application provides users a single interface to data stored in different types of legacy systems used for functions such as property assessment and appraisal and building-permit management.

A digital document access application lets users view scanned images of documents such as deeds and digital photographs of property. The incident analysis application lets users query the database on permits for questions about contractor licensing and code violations. The parcel-based ad hoc query application contains 100 pieces of property parcel-related information, which can let users easily generate mailing labels to adjoining properties or parcels with other properties in common.

The final part of the pilot is a geocoding and addressing application, which will allow nontechnical users, such as clerks or mayors, to produce their own maps.

The pilot has led participants to two realizations: The first being that compromise is key to a regional system. Ultimately, the system has attained all the features everyone needed, but marginal items requested by only some participants didn't make the cut. "The core system should provide a common database and a common suite of applications/interfaces to satisfy the shared data and application needs of all participants," Frazier said.

The second realization was that the pilot revealed that the amount of data needed and the features requested will exceed expectations. Those who worked on the Regis project ended up with twice as many data attributes and elements as they had expected. "The data elements really escalated," said Jerry Felix, executive director of the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council. "Not out of sight, but [they] had the potential to do so."

- Dan Carney

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Tips for Funding a Regional GIS

A suggestion for local governments looking for cash to fund a regional geographic information system: Ask the feds. Because a portion of the GIS covers transportation infrastructure-about $2.6 million of the Michigan communities' Regional GIS project is transportation-related-the project qualified for a $520,000 federal grant under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act to help fund the pilot.

Another suggestion that all participants make is to develop a cohesive political will among the participants. "It is imperative that a developing Regional GIS consortium garner and maintain direct executive-level support and involvement," said Eric Frazier, Regis project director for Convergent Group. "This executive involvement allows for joint regional decisions and, in some cases, concessions by some participants, for the benefit of the consortium."

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