GIS on the NET
Five years ago, residents who wanted maps of their property or developers who wanted maps of county zoning had to trek to the appropriate government office and request them in person. Now, some property appraisers, GIS departments and other local government agencies are saving time and money for themselves and their residents by posting those maps on the Internet. The interactive, online maps only provide basic geographic information, but they are enhancing local government agencies’ customer service for residents and are increasing productivity for government staff.
In building their internal GIS, local governments have created sophisticated tools for analyzing their residents’ needs in relation to their environment. For example, customized GIS maps allow local officials to plot where crimes occur to determine where to increase security.
Internet GIS moves far beyond posting static maps of roads or geographic features on a Web page. The Fairfax County, Va., online GIS allows Internet users to browse aerial photographs, floodplains, political boundaries, and to search for addresses and parcel information of all properties in the county. If users want to see only the roads in the county, they can hide all other layers in the GIS. Users also can choose to view all layers of the county’s geographic information at once. “Viewing the information online is just like looking at our database – it’s the actual data,” says Robert Shankman, GIS analyst for Fairfax County. “People could create a customized map and print it out for a community meeting.”
As agencies put their GIS on the Internet, they are providing residents with the tools to assess their own communities. “Web GIS is one part of giving information to residents and getting them involved in local government,” says Marc Verniel, assistant town manager for Blacksburg, Va. “It exposes them to information they didn’t have access to or time to research before. It gives them an awareness of their surroundings, planning issues and land use, and they can get a better understanding of how government works.”
Helping residents understand how government works is one of the reasons Westchester County, N.Y., began making its GIS available on the Internet. In 1998, the county hired a CIO whose goals were to make government more accessible to the public. That involved making the county’s extensive GIS data available on the Web.
“The challenge at first was that we were `opening up the closet,’ so to speak,” says Sam Wear, Westchester County’s GIS manager. “It’s one thing to have data on disks – you can have cryptic coding [that only a few understand]. On the Web, you can’t assume that people understand. It has to be intuitive.”
The Westchester County GIS Department chose Internet software from Redlands, Calif.-based ESRI to make its GIS viewable in Internet browsers. The county’s GIS Web site features zoomable maps of topography and political districts as well as links to municipal tax parcel information. Internet users can select layers that display local colleges, hospitals, solid waste disposal sites, or just view a map of the county’s changes in elevation.
Residents can search their city’s tax parcel information by entering a parcel address or an owner name, or they can limit the search to houses of a particular size located within a particular school district, or houses built before a particular date. Once the search criteria are submitted in the Internet browser, the appropriate parcel information is displayed on the computer screen accompanied by its related information, i.e., owner’s name and address, property value and tax exemptions.
All the information on the Westchester County GIS Web site is available in Spanish as well as in English to provide access to as many county residents as possible. One of the GIS staff members translates all of the Web site’s information into Spanish so that knowledge of the locations of all of the county’s toxic waste sites, for example, is not limited to English-speaking residents. “We want to spread GIS to everyone in the county,” says Norman Jacknis, Westchester County CIO.
Consultants, residents, community groups and environmental groups are the main audience for the Westchester County Web site, Wear says. “The functionality is basic, but, if the quality meets their needs, they can download or print maps from the site,” he says. “It’s what public access to government is all about.”
Before posting GIS on the Internet, local government agencies must pay close attention to their state’s public records laws to ensure the information they provide does not violate privacy interests while meeting public records requirements. “We analyzed Virginia’s public information access policy three years ago,” says Katherine Smith, GIS coordinator for Blacksburg, Va. “We found that all of our GIS information fell within [the requirements of] the Freedom of Information Act.”
(The federal Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] outlines the type of information federal government agencies may and may not release in response to citizen requests. However, the federal act does not apply to state and local governments, so each state has adopted its own FOIA.)
However, when Lee County (Fla.) Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson began investigating the possibility of posting his office’s GIS on the Internet, he found that the public did not have the same rights to electronic data that it had to paper documents. He worked with Manatee County representatives to change the state public records laws to allow equal access to government documents in electronic format. (Wilkinson, whose 1980 election platform was based on the desire to make the property appraisers’ records public, has been reelected six times without opposition.)
Florida public records laws allow property owner information to be suppressed in cases in which the owner is a judge or a law enforcement/public safety official, but those individuals must make a written request that their information be blocked. In making the property owner information available on the Internet, Wilkinson has allowed some residents who do not fit into any of the protected groups to remove their property information from the Web site. Wilkinson says he will take their information off the Web site, but it is still public information that people can get in other ways. “We have had an overwhelmingly positive response from the public,” Wilkinson says. “When [residents express concern], though, it is usually from people who are uneducated about the available technology.”
The Seminole County (Fla.) Property Appraiser’s office is not so accommodating. It blocks only property owner information for those groups protected by law. “The problem with public information is that it is public,” says Property Appraiser Bill Suber. “If it is public information, the statute says we are supposed to make it available. We will suppress some exemption codes to protect privacy, though. [For example,] no one can search to find all the widows in the county to prey on them.”
In Orange County, Fla., the property appraiser’s office has taken similar advantage of public information laws and the Internet to make information about property ownership widely available. “Florida has a very open public records law,” says Rich Crotty, Orange County property appraiser. “I think that any record someone could get by going to a government office should be available on their desktop, too. Why make them come downtown?”
The Orange County Property Appraiser’s office first put its GIS on the Internet in 1998. The site is designed to provide property information to home owners, home buyers and real estate brokers – the primary groups that request information from the office. “My office historically prepares the tax roll,” Crotty says. “That’s the whole reason we’re here. But it has become an information dissemination office as much as anything else.”
So far, Orange County has not received any resistance to putting its GIS on the Internet except from the local board of realtors, which feared initially that it would no longer be needed. The board’s fears subsided when the office invited board members to an educational session about the Web site to show them how they could use the information to help them do their jobs. “We haven’t had any residents calling with concerns,” Crotty says.
Westchester County has tried to alleviate public concern about privacy by rolling out its GIS layers slowly, with the least sensitive information going on the Internet first. “We’ve put up information that is not confidential,” Wear says. “Most of it is environmental in nature. Fortunately, it is not a serious issue now, but, at some point, we will have to deal with it.”
While GIS on the Internet is accessible to anyone with a Web browser, the scope of most online GIS is scaled down from the localities’ full GIS capabilities. The Blacksburg Web GIS has 32 layers of information available to users while its in-house applications have 64 layers. For residents with advanced GIS needs, the town makes its full GIS available on a CD, which can be purchased for $15 and used by anyone with the appropriate software.
Likewise, the Seminole County maps that went online in 1999 are scaled down, but still current, versions of the county’s in-house GIS. The county Information Services Department provides the GIS for free download from its Web site, and it sells the most frequently used layers of the GIS – 100 layers worth of information – for $40. Residents with library cards also can check out the CDs from the county libraries and copy them onto their personal computers. The CDs and the downloadable files are both updated quarterly. By purchasing or copying the county’s CD or downloading the GIS, users get aerial photography of the county that is not yet available online.
Ultimately, the online GIS information allows residents to find information whenever they want instead of getting more information than they need or waiting in lines at government offices during regular business hours. “Web functionality enables the county to put GIS on the desktop of every county employee and to any resident at no additional cost to the users,” says Tom Conry, GIS manager of Fairfax County. “It gives residents 24-7 integrated services and more up-to-date information where and when they need it.”
Local government agencies save time and money as a result. The Orange County Property Appraiser’s office, for example, has not had an increase in spending for the last seven years, even though it has increased service to residents through the Web site. As many online GIS are only in their infancy in terms of amount of information they provide, it is still a leap from the amount that was previously available. “The only thing limiting us now is our imagination,” Wilkinson says.