Va. county puts all land data into one site

Fairfax County, Va., has developed a repository for land use data that will make it easier for county employees, land developers and residents to access real-time information about zoning changes, county land ordinances and property history.

The land data repository, based on the MarkLogic 5 database, will boost the productivity of county employees who have to search through multiple databases to find pertinent information and give residents, who now have to search through a plethora of websites for home history data, a single website to access information, according to a Fairfax County IT executive.

Fairfax is the Washington metropolitan area’s largest county, with a population of about 1 million people. About 87 percent of the county’s 395,000 multifamily and single-family homes are wired for the Internet. As a result, “there is a large expectation by the land development community and citizens to have access to land use data,” Woodrow Bellamy, branch chief for the land use team within Fairfax’s Department of Information Technology, said Nov. 16 at the MarkLogic Government Summit 2011 in Washington, D.C.

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Giving the county workforce and the public easy access to that information was not easy because the volumes of data resided in disparate systems and in different formats. Systems included Oracle databases, 30-year old mainframe applications, and PDF files.

Land use data is vital to a wide range of constituents. All properties must adhere to Fairfax County land use ordinances. Proposals for commercial and residential development must be reviewed and approved by a variety of Fairfax County agencies.

Land development organizations need to know the history of land or property to determine the total cost of developing a property. They need to know whether the building has asbestos, whether there is a well on the property or whether the previous owners had a property statement indicating that they would put in traffic lights.

Prospective home buyers would want to use the database to see whether a property with a deck or basement put in by the previous owner complies with Fairfax County standards. Or they might want to know whether the home was under investigation for overcrowding. During the housing market collapse a few years ago, some homeowners made makeshift basements and apartments within their homes.

Public officials and residents need access to that type of information, Bellamy said. But the information was all in different databases.

After evaluating several vendors and doing a proof of concept, Fairfax County brought in MarkLogic in July 2011 to consolidate data into a single, searchable database, Bellamy said. MarkLogic 5 is a hybrid database consisting of analytic, content management and search capabilities, which can ingest and analyze structured and unstructured data.

Mainframe data was converted by the end of August. It was put into a test database, and Bellamy’s team showed it to the six agencies it supports. They started using it right away, Bellamy said. In fact, the mainframe systems are being shut off Nov. 18, about a month a head of schedule.

“Several constituent agencies, when we told them we were going to shut down the 30-year-old mainframe system and put [the data] into a searchable database, said, ‘Sure, Woodrow. We’ll see you in a couple of years.' ” However, they were given a demo in September and are now relying strictly on MarkLogic to search this 30-year-old data, Bellamy said.

Bellamy wanted a searchable engine that did not require extensive training for end users, one in which they could just “mouse, click and go.” The repository contains property history and information can be searched by tax map identification, by address or by keywords. For instance, typing in the word "heliport" quickly brings up data on all the heliports in Fairfax and their permits.

“Anyone can access the data,” Bellamy said. The data can be spatially displayed by geographic information systems such as ESRI, which the county uses.

The county needed a repository that also would fit within its infrastructure and didn’t require an extensive number of servers, Bellamy said. The repository works with the county’s VMware environment in which several servers have the capability of running other applications as well.

Bellamy’s team also wanted a system that was based on a fixed-cost model. Some database providers charge by the number of records used, some by the amount of space used, or by the number of indexes they may have built. MarkLogic offered a fixed-cost model wherein the application server, database and indexes are all on one single server. That enables the county to reap the benefits of its investment quickly.

The county is now looking to extend the repository to the public in December and into January 2012.

Bellamy said the repository could possibly be extended for other uses beyond land use incorporating human resources or financial data.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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