Las Vegas Rolls GIS Toward Citizens and City Workers

Las Vegas is the nation's fastest-growing city. Each month it takes in 6,000 new residents, approves construction of more than 577 new homes and cranks out 500 new business permits. To manage that kind of expansion, city officials are leveraging the power of a geographic information systems (GIS) database it started developing more than 10 years ago.

The GIS database is a building block of "Virtual Las Vegas," a $10 million project to create a paperless city hall and revamp most of the city's basic information systems. In doing so, the city wants to make its geographic data repositories-once considered a resource for only specialized applications-available to its less technical workers.

"Having GIS integrated in traditionally non-GIS applications" and used as an "everyday computing resource" for city workers will be one of its most challenging goals, according to the city's 1998 technology plan. To do that, a GIS team is developing city datasets with Arc/Info, high-end GIS software from Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. Casual users can access those applications via ArcView, ESRI's more basic user platform.

The Virtual Las Vegas project is an outgrowth of a 1994 contract with Los Angeles-based systems integrator ThirdWave Inc. to rebuild the city's information technology infrastructure. The basic scheme is to evolve from a mainframe architecture to a client/server system "while maintaining centralized administration," said Joseph Marcella, the city's IT director.

ThirdWave vice president Robert Aguilar said the client/server system would let the city make its databases available throughout city departments via a system of servers. "All information is made consistent, shared and modifiable across the entire database," he said.In the city's 14 departments, workers and citizens would use ArcView to run programs such as online registration for park time and automated approval for land development. Today senior GIS analyst Jim Jackson, a liaison in the city's Public Works Department, can use an ArcView application to determine whether a specific property is in a flood zone.

"The engineers type in an address and the software searches, zooms to the area and shows the location of nearby flood zones," Jackson said. "With the click of a button, [engineers] can fill in the necessary information on a form letter and print it out. The time required for flood-zone determination has dropped from 20 hours a week down to two or three."

The city has about 10 people in its core GIS development team. A half-dozen more are "GIS liaisons" in different departments. Today its "casual user base" numbers about 150, but that is expected to grow. "The idea is to have re-engineering that is taking place under the Virtual Las Vegas project identify a variety of uses for GIS," said Louis Carr, GIS manager for the city.

Among the most important uses, GIS can be used as a tool for easing companies over the hurdles of starting new businesses in the city. "We have a dataset of business licenses to track and map the areas of the city in which business is growing the fastest and where houses are going up," Carr said. "The city is growing so rapidly, and most of the businesses that are going in are small businesses. We want to be able to map specific datasets to identify things like private day care facilities, casinos and facilities holding liquor licenses. We want a good handle on all that, and the best way to do that is by using maps."

New GIS systems also will help coordinate information requests between departments, which are now multiplying in the city's growth spurt. When a new building goes up, parking lots must be correctly sized, fire hydrants must be properly placed, and building lots must be zoned as required. A new system called DARTS-for Development and Review Tracking System-will automate the cumbersome approval process by linking data between departments and divisions.

"DARTS will electronically track our documents and reports," Carr said. "If someone wants to build a building, we can pull together all the associated information that goes with that. This would include building plans, comments from the public, zoning variances, notes from planning and development, the Public Works Department, the city council and the city clerk." Much of that information will be available on the Internet.

To build DARTS, developers used Action Technologies Inc.'s Action Workflow Enterprise Series, which is a workflow software suite, and ActionWorks Metro, a World Wide Web-based workflow tool. Also, in an effort to adopt a common look and feel to the application, developers used ESRI's MapObjects GIS and Microsoft Corp.'s VisualBasic programming tools. That allowed for "true Windows applications with a GIS component in them for our end users, with all the components you would expect: pull down menus, buttons and toolbars," Carr said.

While ambitious, the Virtual Las Vegas project has had its ups and downs. Earlier this year, a city auditor determined that the IT department had "many internal control weaknesses" throughout the program and needed better access control and security of its core systems, including GIS. The city has addressed the auditor's concerns, according to Marcella.

Yet city officials are still bullish on the system. "The whole entrepreneurial spirit of this town says I have to do things better if I'm going to stay in business," said Steve Houchens, the deputy city manager, "so there's support for trying something new and different. And when you're trying to overhaul an entire system instead of changing it one piece at a time, it takes the spirit of a city like this to make it happen."

Paul Gilster is a Raleigh, N.C.-based free-lancer and the author of Digital Literacy. He can be reached at gilster@mindspring.com.

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Las Vegas' 1998 GIS investment

* Training for GIS staff: $3,800 per person (for Visual Basic, MapObjects and Hypertext Markup Language/Java).

* Additional MapObjects licenses: $6,000 (two for $3,000 each).

* 1998 upgrades: $3,500 - ArcView ($2,000), MapObjects ($900) and Visual Basic ($600).

* Arc/Info annual maintenance: $25,000 (six Sun Microsystems Inc. Unix workstations).

* Hardware maintenance: $29,500 (six Sun workstations, Hewlett-Packard Co. plotters and backup units).

Source: Las Vegas 1998 Information Technologies Department Strategic Plan.

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