Spatial Technologies--County Governments Keep in Step with the GIS Data Dance

28 Feb, 2006 By: Deborah Kiernan,James L. Sipes

GIS-based Web sites help counties serve residents, curb costs.

GIS HAS BECOME an important part of the day-to-day operations of county governments because it helps them make wiser, more cost-effective decisions in support of county growth while minimizing negative impact on the environment.

Three counties that make extensive use of GIS are King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties in the Seattle and Puget Sound area in Washington state. These three counties are the most populated in the state, and each has recognized GIS as an important and practical tool. They use GIS to evaluate planning and engineering alternatives, develop better solutions and produce maps to effectively communicate with local stakeholders who are concerned with growth in their communities.

King County

King County, home of the Seattle Space Needle, Starbucks and Microsoft, is located on Puget Sound in Washington. It's one of the largest counties in the United States with an area of 2,134 square miles and more than 1.8 million people, making it the 13th most populous county in the nation.

According to George Horning, GIS center manager, King County uses GIS in virtually every aspect of county government. "King County's building permit counter in the Department of Development and Environmental Services uses interactive GIS maps to determine development regulations in place for any given parcel of land," Horning says. "Zoning, lot dimensions, wetlands, steep slopes, aerial photos and other map layers can all be depicted on a computer screen and reviewed."

The county is gradually shifting away from paper maps to digital maps that are either interactive or static. In addition, adds Horning, "a vast array of property characteristics can be processed by GIS and collated into easy-to-understand summary tables, so employees don't have to search through shelves and cabinets looking for maps, policies, plans or other documents needed to intake a simple permit application."

King County evaluates policies, programs and work plans using GIS so staff members can model the effect of a given proposal and show the impact before work begins. For example, the King County's wastewater treatment division uses a GIS application to make experimental changes to the stormwater conveyance infrastructure. This process helps eliminate guesswork and guide county decision makers toward spending their limited resources for the greatest return.

King County's Web mapping applications recorded more than two million user sessions during 2005. These applications are available to the public 24/7 via the Internet. Residents can use the GIS capabilities to find answers to their questions, which frees up county employees. "If only 5% of the visitors to the county's GIS Web site spent ten minutes on the phone with a county official, the resulting 100,000 phone calls would tie up 10 employees full-time for an entire year!" Horning exclaims.

The county plans on expanding its use of GIS. It wants to use more mobile technology to get GIS out in the field (figure 1). King County is integrating GIS in a wider array of business applications, where it runs in the background so that most users are not even aware they are using GIS. "Some of these business applications will be nearly independent of GIS, perhaps accessing a single GIS function to populate an address field or return a list of properties near a point of interest," Horning says.

Figure 1. King County plans to use more mobile technology to get GIS out in the field.
Figure 1. King County plans to use more mobile technology to get GIS out in the field.

GIS is also becoming more real-time as improvements are made in how data is collected and accessed. King County is looking to use more transmitter devices and automated routines that will nearly instantaneously verify, format and upload to data libraries, narrowing the time gap between when GIS data is collected and when it is available for use.

Horning also notes that big corporations such as Google and Microsoft are beginning to overwhelm the Internet with mapping applications that make use of county GIS data. Google Earth is free, and it provides access to an amazing amount of geospatial data. Counties can make GIS data available and quickly add this data to the Google Earth information. This trend will put applications and data at the fingertips of many people who have never heard of GIS before.

Pierce County

Pierce County, located south of Seattle, is spread over 1,679 square miles and has a population of approximately 755,000. The county is surrounded by saltwater shores and towering mountain peaks and is nationally recognized for its quality of life. Pierce County started using GIS extensively as a planning tool in the late 1980s. "Our system has evolved into a daily business resource used by 25 departments with more than 700 employees as well as the public," says Linda Gerull, GIS manager for the county. More than 800 GIS datasets in Pierce County are interlinked, and the county's GIS provides multiple database-searching tools, such as the ability to find a location by address, property owner, city, ZIP code or subdivision name. Once a location is found, a user can display various combinations of maps and information.

Figure 2. The Pierce County Sheriff's Department uses Web-based GIS to inform residents about the location of known registered sex offenders in their neighborhood.
Figure 2. The Pierce County Sheriff's Department uses Web-based GIS to inform residents about the location of known registered sex offenders in their neighborhood.

Gerull believes one of the most significant uses of GIS in Pierce County is communicating with its community. Using GIS, the county can provide a visual display of community plans, land-use changes or block-watch neighborhoods, along with a multitude of other usable information, to the general public and businesses. Pierce County currently has more than a dozen GIS-based Web applications that answer complex questions and allow users to view the results. These include a sex-offender registry, property sales comparables search and a GIS data request site, which allows users to order digital GIS datasets (parcels, roads, contours) for use in projects (figures 2 and 3).

Figure 3. The Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer has established a Web site that allows users to access GIS data to search for information such as property sales.
Figure 3. The Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer has established a Web site that allows users to access GIS data to search for information such as property sales.

In the near future, Pierce County plans to take GIS into the field by incorporating portable computers with GPS and location-based technologies. "Using GIS outside the office is already in progress in Pierce County and this will increase," Gerull notes. "Sewer inspectors, sign inspectors, deputies and social workers can all use GIS to efficiently organize their work assignments, answer questions or report the location of problems." Another GIS trend in the near future is management of historical land records.

GIS will continue to serve as a central technology and resource for effective and cost-conscious government in Pierce County. "GIS is helping us create a transparent government where citizens can easily find answers to their questions and communicate effectively with county staff," Gerull says.

Snohomish County

Snohomish County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, with a population of 650,000. Located north of King County, it covers 2,090 square miles of varied topography ranging from saltwater beaches, rolling hills and rich river-bottom farmlands in the west to dense forest and alpine wilderness in the east.

"Nearly every department in the county uses GIS on a regular basis," says Edward Fairbanks Sr., GIS programmer/analyst for Snohomish County. The county employs nearly two dozen people to build, maintain, manage and deploy GIS data and applications, and more than 100 county planners, engineers and administrators use GIS to augment their primary discipline. Kent Barbeau, GIS coordinator for Snohomish County Assessor, says the wide-scale use of GIS at the county really accelerated when the parcel base was completed in May 2002. "It was the point at which virtually all hand-drawn and color shaded maps stopped being produced at the county," Barbeau notes.

Snohomish County's Department of Information Services (DIS) has played a pivotal role in developing GIS within the county. "DIS partners with several departments to maintain GIS layers such as hydrography, parks and trails, and registered sex offenders," Fairbanks notes. DIS provides training and technical support, and also manages the coordination of GIS data on a central server. In addition, other GIS data from state and local governments are obtained and added to the collection. A Web-based GIS metadata system provides county users with information about each data set, including file location, contents, source and contact information.

Desktop GIS applications include a property owner notification system, which is used to send official mailings to citizens who live within a certain distance of a proposed project or land use action (figure 4). The system is graphically based, with only a few clicks needed to create formatted mailing labels for hundreds of addresses.

Figure 4. Mapping salmon habitat is critical in most Pacific Northwest counties, including Snohomish County.
Figure 4. Mapping salmon habitat is critical in most Pacific Northwest counties, including Snohomish County.

According to Michael McGuiness, principal planner in the surface water management division, GIS is used extensively to help meet the intrinsic requirement to analyze data for engineering, hydrologic modeling, basin planning and habitat enhancement purposes (figure 5). The division has also developed a real-time flood warning information Web page that combines GIS-based maps with real-time collection and transmission of stream gage data. The result is a very readable green-yellow-red stoplight approach to conveying the status of flood levels. Gage data is updated on the Web every 15 minutes. "As a result, public agencies and people with property that might be in danger now have a tool to help them make informed decisions during emergent flood events," McGuinnes explains.

Figure 5. This map shows bank conditions, log jams and pool sizes along a reach of the Skykomish River in Snohomish. A 2003 digital orthophoto is used for the background.
Figure 5. This map shows bank conditions, log jams and pool sizes along a reach of the Skykomish River in Snohomish. A 2003 digital orthophoto is used for the background.

The Internet has simplified access to all kinds of information, including GIS. More than 1,500 visitors use the Snohomish County online property information Web site each day to obtain ownership, taxation and other parcel information from the assessor's office. The interactive map includes tools for locating property by address, parcel ID or by navigating the map, which has significantly reduced traffic into the assessor's office and improved public service.

GIS is often thought of only as map-based data. In this sense, GIS won't take the county or any other organization very far. GIS is actually many tabular data systems linked together through a common spatial fabric. "The more we bind our data together through GIS, the more easily accessible it becomes," Barbeau states. "GIS can provide information in a way that is much more intuitive to people. GIS will be a major component in making that happen because a very large percentage of the county's data can be linked to a location on the ground."

Snohomish County will continue to apply GIS technology to more functions: housing needs, critical areas, economic development, law enforcement and many others. Combining GIS with other existing processes and information sources will provide greater efficiencies needed as policies are changed and budgets tightened.

In This article
In This article

Carrol Lane, principal GIS analyst for Snohomish County's Department of Planning and Development Services, says GIS has resulted in significant time savings, staff resource efficiencies, greater data accuracy, higher quality products and data analysis capabilities for the county.

Lane says, "Expectations about GIS Web access applications are increasing as staff and public become more familiar with this now-essential part of modern life." Lane also believes that Snohomish County is more committed to provide cost-effective, innovative and practical GIS products and service.

Future Focus

Where will GIS take King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties in the future? A decade ago, GIS was a niche technology used only by experienced professionals. Since then, GIS has evolved into a mainstream technology integral to government enterprise.

"We will be able to offer easier access to more information on more types of devices to more people," Fairbanks says. "With so much data being collected and stored, the ability to connect relevant pieces together and to present the information in an understandable way is invaluable. When the common element is location, GIS is very good at doing that."

McGuinnes believes that GIS is only a vehicle. "Where GIS takes us in the future depends on our creative ability to look at our world in different ways and to make decisions based on the best information available. Continued innovations in GIS software and use of technology tools such as LIDAR, high-accuracy GPS equipment, multispectral satellite imagery, digital orthophotography, Web applications and wireless applications will allow us to analyze and display resource data in ways that are not possible today."

These counties are well on their way as they create new and exciting GIS choreography to add to this powerful data dance.

James L. Sipes is the founding principal of Sand County Studios in Seattle, Washington. Deborah M. Kiernan is a contract specialist for Snohomish County Public Works.

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