County’s GIS focuses on the big picture
Since Jefferson County, Colo., created a Mapping Department in 1978, GIS has played the role of supporting cast member to county departments, residents and the private sector. Work that started as maps on a wall has evolved to include sophisticated technology, and GIS now contributes to nearly all of the county’s operations. In fact, GIS operations have evolved so much that the Mapping Department (renamed GIS Department in 1994) no longer exists. Last year, the county merged GIS with other technology services to form two departments: IT Development (ITD) and IT Operations (ITO).
The addition of new GIS-based technology has allowed the county to maintain operations with virtually the same number of employees, despite an increase of 70,000 residents over the last five years. Primarily used by Planning and Zoning, the Assessor’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office, the county’s GIS tools now include a proprietary information system, GIS-integrated computer-aided dispatch, a browser-based information system and a highly advanced GIS component on Jefferson County’s web site (co.jefferson. co.us).
The Assessor’s Office and the Planning and Zoning Department collect significant amounts of data — from parcel size to monetary value — for 190,000 parcels in Jefferson County’s jurisdiction. GIS programmers have developed several customized programs for use by those employees.
To disseminate data, the county has developed a data extraction interface (DEI) that county employees can access to get property records, tax records and other information for its jurisdiction. Called Pandora, the system allows users to select the spatial data layers of interest to obtain information.
The system is so simple that it requires no training, according to Dave Gallaher, IT development director for Jefferson County. “You don’t even have to know how to spell,” he adds. Users search for data by starting with an address. When they type in a house or building number, such as 101, the system automatically pulls a list of all addresses with that number. Users then select the address and pull the data they need.
Other employees, such as Sue Sterrett, mass appraisal analyst for the Assessor’s Office, use a more advanced tool — a customized version of ArcView, from Redlands, Calif.-based ESRI. Assessment data is integrated with digital photographs to allow employees to quickly identify properties before heading out on foot to inspect them. That is particularly important when assessing vacant properties or lots that may not have a street number, Sterrett says.
“It helps us find cross streets for properties,” she explains. “[The technology] is becoming so essential that we can’t imagine life without it. It saves a lot of time.” The time-saving quality became very important for Sterrett recently when she was working on a project for State Sen. Norma Anderson, who had proposed breaking the Jefferson County School District into four separate districts. Sterrett used GIS to determine potential dividing lines in the county, total the values of each area and identify key parcels in each area. “I had one day to get the proposal together,” she says.
While GIS tools save valuable time in research and map construction, they also play a role in decision-making among county officials. The Planning and Zoning Department frequently creates maps and reports for use in zoning hearings, as well as day-to-day activities. “Every single project that we do, we use GIS,” says Planner Russell Clark. “It makes our data analysis better, and we can easily compare and contrast information.”
Planning and Zoning employees run case analyses on all zoning and rezoning applications, checking flood hazards and potential fire zones on parcels and reviewing all previous zoning designations. They also report on demographics and development patterns for the county. “We frequently get requests from districts that want to know how many people live in a certain area and how that has changed,” Clark says.
GIS played a significant role in a zoning case last fall, when a firm had proposed construction of a quarry near a residential area. The site was bordered by two parks, and many residents were concerned about the quarry’s proximity to their living space.
The proposal was further complicated by the fact that the site was on the border between Jefferson and Boulder counties; Jefferson employees had to work with their neighbor county to analyze the situation, Clark says. They created multiple maps to determine how residents would be affected by the quarry, checking the view from different angles and analyzing residential growth. Eventually, the quarry proposal was rejected.
GIS to the rescue
While it is helpful in planning and assessment activities, GIS is now playing a role in potentially life-saving activities with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. Last year, the county acquired a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system that is GIS-integrated. The department had been dissatisfied with its old CAD system for quite a while because of limited functionality, according to Randy Smith, information services director for the Sheriff’s Office. The system also was not Y2K-compliant.
Installed last fall, the new system from Anaheim, Calif.-based Printrak International allows emergency dispatchers to pinpoint 911 calls to county locations via geographical data such as latitude and longitude instead of just street addresses. When a 911 call is generated, an icon is placed on a map. Dispatchers can then see corresponding text, which may include hazard information to forewarn responding officers. Dispatchers are able to relay 911 call history and details about the surrounding area to responders. The system keeps detailed call records and is fully connected to the countywide alarm system on county facilities. Eventually, the system will be interfaced with records from the Colorado Bureau of Investigations.
However, the GIS integration is the most important feature, Smith says. “It allows us to have more data for crime analysis. Having information like latitude and longitude really helps with reporting,” he adds. In addition, the county has the ability to turn data layers on and off. For example, users can view all the schools or all the businesses in a certain area on a map or look at crimes by jurisdictions. “It gives the dispatchers more information at their fingertips than they have ever had in the past,” Smith notes.
The department completed the estimated nine-month installation in five months so that it would be functional before the Y2K rollover. Dispatchers received 12 hours of training for the new CAD system and are receiving follow-up training over the next few months. The county hopes to add automatic vehicle locator capability and mobile data computers later this year.
The CAD system is helping the Sheriff’s Office perform more efficiently than before, but GIS had assisted with emergency response prior to the CAD implementation. Following the shootings at Columbine High School last spring, GIS assisted county officials, investigators and the media by enabling ITD to print 800 media kits in two days following the shooting to provide maps, blueprints of the school and other information about the school property and the county. It also printed more than 1,000 maps and images over a two-week period after the tragedy.
“The media were demanding answers,” Gallaher says. “We didn’t have the answers, but we were able to use the technology to give them something to kind of hold them at bay so the county could investigate.” The department also was able to assist investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms by providing materials.
In a 1996 incident, GIS played an important role after a wildfire burned more than 11,000 acres of public and private timber land in the county. Personal pr operty damage was minimal, but the fire showed county officials the land’s vulnerability. After the fire, the GIS department started building fire modules with satellite imagery to pinpoint potential burn zones and develop response patterns.
The department also uses the data to communicate with residents about fire hazards on their properties. For example, county officials have been able to locate homes with fire-friendly vegetation like blue spruce and encourage residents to maintain it for safety. “We can use technology to save lives,” Gallaher says.
With the addition of the CAD system to the Sheriff’s Office, GIS is now used by most major divisions and departments in the county. That makes sense, Gallaher says, because so many of the employees are involved in data collection. “Probably 60 percent of the employees are gathering data,” he says.
By simplifying the technology, ITD has allowed GIS to become a mainstream tool. In developing systems like Pandora, ITD abided by the “KISS” rule (Keep it simple, stupid), Gallaher explains. “Our whole GIS application has five buttons,” he says. “You can build all the data in the world, but, if you don’t get it to the people who need it, you’ve missed your goal. We want to avoid confusion at all costs.” ITD also follows the 80 percent rule: Create things that will be used 80 percent of the time.
Gallaher says Pandora is a good example of that rule because it is used hundreds of times a day. A scaled-down version of the program, Address Wizard, offers public access to much of the same information. The web-based tool allows users to view property measurement, elevation, zip code and other physical data of particular properties, and it provides a list of district contacts, such as the district attorney, Congressional representative, senator, assessor, sheriff and the coroner.
Because some data is not a matter of public record, Jefferson County formed a Technical Services Steering Committee (TSSC) comprised of elected county officials to advise ITD. When a new program is developed, ITD will review it with TSSC to determine access. “Every wonderful tool can be turned into a nasty weapon,” Gallaher says. “The issue of what to release and what not to release really confounds us. One of ITD’s tasks is [to answer]: Can it be done? TSSC’s task is [to answer]: Should it be done?”
“Some people thought Address Wizard was too ‘big brother-y,'” says Stephen Mitchell, GIS programmer/ analyst for the county. “But they have always been able to get that information because it’s public record. We’re trying to empower folks.”
Empowering residents with tools like Address Wizard also takes some of the workload off county workers. As in most city and county departments, the web page offers a forum for people to get answers to frequently asked questions without calling the department directly. That, in turn, frees county employees to work on other projects. “It’s a way for people to get answers easily,” Gallaher says. “I think people get much more information [on the web site] than they would get if they called up and talked to someone.”
To infinity and beyond
Despite its success in providing a government-wide GIS, ITD has experienced a number of problems, primarily with its staff. The dissolution of the GIS Department to form ITD and ITO created complications because many employees’ roles were redefined. There were some morale issues as well, Gallaher says.
Additionally, staff turnover has been high. Last year, Gallaher was offered a position in the private sector that paid twice as much as his current salary. Although he did not take the job, several key players in the county have moved elsewhere. In fact, one of Gallaher’s staff members left Jefferson County to become GIS director in a neighboring county.
Even with those setbacks, Jefferson County’s GIS operations have flourished in the past few years as new tools have been developed — the demand for which rarely slows. “People think the private sector is where cutting-edge technology is,” Mitchell says. “That’s not always the case.” “We have a lot of ideas for new advancements,” Sterrett says. “They are slowly becoming reality.”
ITD is now working on 3-D surface modeling. With the help of Space Imaging, Thornton, Colo., the county has created a photo-realistic simulation of the county’s land which users can “fly by” at speeds up to 3,000 mph. Surface modeling will be used for site evaluation, site planning and analysis. Fire districts, for example, will be among the users, Gallaher explains.
“This is a fascinating place to work,” Gallaher says. “We’re doing things [with technology] that aren’t being done anywhere else. Trying to do that in government is a great challenge, but it’s a great deal of fun.”