County shares wealth of GIS data via cable TV
In recent years, Johnston County, N.C., has undertaken a major effort to automate its information management using state-of-the-art technologies. For starters, the county put in place a UNIX-based GIS and created a graphical database of more than 55,000 land parcels from property deeds.
With this extensive database of valuable information in place, the challenge has been to provide greater access to the information, at a reasonable cost, to the county’s many departments, as well as to the public.
By 1995, the county’s economic development department had access to the GIS database, which it used to produce maps showing the location of tracts of land available to industries. The database allowed creation of maps quickly to illustrate the relationship of proposed sites to existing municipalities and transportation routes and provided population statistics for projections of available work forces.
Interest in database access grew in other count departments as the usefulness of this information was demonstrated. The planning department, for example, wanted similar access to help it decide in which jurisdiction particular parcels were located. These decisions have a direct impact on building and land-use permits.
The tax department was also interested, since GIS access would help with decisions about modifying property listings or resolving acreage disputes by viewing owners, holdings.
The need to place display stations in various office locations was a major concern, as many of the agencies are located in different buildings scattered throughout the jurisdiction.
Most of the departments had purchased PCs for internal uses such as permit tracking, secretarial duties, spreadsheet creation and database applications. These systems were operating with DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1 compatible software, and the county wanted to continue using these systems instead of purchasing new hardware for every department.
The county manager, the director of data processing and the director of GIS met to discuss objectives and available technologies. The manager envisioned creating a county network that gave county departments access to the GIS database, while also being flexible enough to provide access to the nine municipalities and various attorneys, surveyors and real estate agents in the county. He wanted to create an environment that would allow the county to charge for remote access to the database with a long-term goal of generating revenues to support operating costs.
Meetings were held with the local cable TV company, with the idea in mind of using existing cable wires to transmit data between offices and adjacent buildings rather than installing expensive fiber-optics or telephone lines and modems.
The county was using GIS software from Genasys, Fort Collins, Colo., developed on the HP platform, as the nucleus of its GIS. After discussions with the software company, the decision was made to use the existing PCs operating under Windows. By installing HP windows emulation software on each PC and TCP/IP software, each system could access the main GIS server. This would allow the county’s existing PCs to be used for graphics access as well as for normal office processing.
Cooperation between the cable company, the GIS vendor and the county departments was crucial in pulling the plan together. First, a fiber-optic network was installed in the county courthouse with an Ethernet hub in each main office. The GIS servers connected directly to the hub, giving immediate access to all the parties on the fiber-optic network.
The network was routed to the basement phone room, where a bridge was installed and the external cable wires were connected to the bridge. The cable company’s switching equipment converted the graphic images into transmittable signals. These signals were sent from the servers via Ethernet through the fiber-optic cables to the cable bridge, then over the cable wire network to the remote county offices at a rate of 10 megabits per second.
An HP 755/99 was installed as the main server. The county weighed purchasing versus leasing the new system, and Hewlett Packard, Chelmsford, Mass., proposed a five-year lease that would allow the county to budget payments for each year with the flexibility to upgrade to newer technology. In addition, the lease would allow the county to return equipment if the governing body did not approve funding in subsequent fiscal years.
As a result, the county was able to make the transition to state-of-the-art technology without a substantial outlay of capital. The project cost approximately $160,000 and was completed in January 1996.
Today, the GIS department has four staff members who maintain data and respond to the ever-increasing demand for map products and information. The GIS server supports 40 users from various county departments. In addition, five terminals in the tax listing office, the GIS office and the Register of Deeds now provide GIS access to the public.
The county has also installed a modem access with graphics display that is currently being used by Carolina Power and Light as the county’s first modern-access customer. The cost to access the GIS database via modem is currently 40 cents per minute, billed monthly.
A bank and a local attorney are the county’s first private sector accounts using the cable TV line for GIS access. The cost is $300 per month for unlimited access payable to the county.
Johnston County has positioned itself to respond to demands for map data and access by the citizens of the county at a very economical cost, and the ability to better serve the public has been a driving force.