Online mapping eases county growing pains

is finding that online maps can be a useful and time-saving tool for providing data to the public.
Cumberland County, N.C.

The county, home to more than 300,000 residents and two major military bases, recently posted a Web site where visitors can find all sorts of land-related information the county maintains. The site is a culmination of many years of work, not only in building online maps for public and internal consumption, but refining how data can be indexed by geographic identification as well.

With county residential growth on the rise, the mapping services on the site should be particularly useful for residents, potential residents, banks, developers and real-estate agents. The site provides a central location for data that formerly someone would have to track down by visiting or calling multiple county and state offices.

The site features a number of maps with markers to pertinent data. One, when given an address, shows the school district for that area, which could be handy for parents moving into a new area. Another service can warn real estate agents if a major state project is being planned around a particular piece of property. Another shows the sex offenders who live around a particular location.

For land developers, another map can show plan details, zoning requirements, permitting and public work orders that affect a specific lot — information formerly spread across multiple county offices. Voting districts, bus routes, flood zones and mosquito spraying zones are also mapped.

In addition to easing information gathering for the public, the county's gradual move to map-based services over the last few years has been beneficial to employees as well: Mapping data that real estate agents and developers require has reduced the number of phone calls the county typically receives by as much as 60 to 70 percent, estimated Mike Osbourn, the mapping coordinator for the county.

Until recently, Osbourn's own office kept plans submitted by developers in paper form, stashed away in 25 file cabinets. Every time a bank or potential homeowner would have a question an employee would rifle through the cabinets to get the original plan. So the county scanned all of their plans — over 10,000 — and made them available as links on the Web map.

Maps have also been integrated with the county's 911 emergency services. Dispatchers can view on a map where an incident occurs, allowing them to better guide fire department vehicles and ambulances. The county gets about 10,000 911 calls per month.

The mapping also helped the county submit to the Department of Homeland Security a comprehensive report on the resources that can be used in emergency response, such as the locations of fire hydrants, gas lines, cell towers, military bases, clinics and pharmacies.

Such ease of access has been decades in the making, Osbourn said. The maps themselves draw data from multiple databases, and they required a uniform way of referring to a set location. In order to make much of the data available, the county required a comprehensive listing of street addresses for all its buildings — something up until the last decade it didn't have, Osbourn noted.

During the 1990s, the county expended considerable effort in assigning each location within the county a street address. The task proved to be a formable one, due to the large number of rural dwellings that were identified only by route numbers. Route numbers were created by mail carriers, who assigned numbers according to the order in which they delivered the mail, Osbourn said.

In other words, there was no logical connection between a route number address and its actual geographic location. This proved to be problematic for emergency-response personnel who could not easily find a house that would be identified only by its route number. So for several years, county employees and contractors went from door to door, noting the geographic location of each building with Global Positioning Satellite readers.

After the project was completed, the county had 95,000 street addresses. Establishing a master database with all the county's address was only the start of the work though. Finding street-related information proved too difficult as the information is spread out across so many different departments. Osbourn relates how one real estate agency inadvertently sold a home that was in the path of a planned highway, a bypass that would connect Fort Bragg with I-95.

"The problem is we had so much paper you don't know where to find things," Osbourn explained. The state's transportation department kept plans of the proposed highway, though the real estate agency didn't know about the paper maps.

So over the past few years, the county has worked on ways to converge geographic-information from different databases onto maps that answer specific user questions. For instance, the county now offers a map for county and state employees that will allow them to define the geographic scope of new projects, such as a highway. They can provide the geographic outlines of their project and have the program return a list of all the properties the project touches.

Key to these projects is the use of mapping software. For geomapping software, the county primarily uses software from Pitney Bowes Business Insight division, most notably MapInfo Professional.

Such mapping software can not only join material from multiple databases and display the results on a single map, but it can also apply advanced filtering to refine the results, a feature that can't be done easily by reusing consumer-based mapping services such as Google Earth. Nor, up until recently, could relational databases easily perform actions such as find all entries that have a close geographic proximity to a given location (though the latest releases of the Microsoft SQL Server and the Oracle database do have geographic-filtering capabilities).

"When you access the data, you're not just accessing in a tabular form, you are looking at the geographic attributes, and that allows you to visualize the data as maps, and also do geographic or spatial queries," said John Winslow, global portfolio director for location intelligence products Pitney Bowes Insight.

Geographic locations also help even when the results are not displayed on a map. The county also uses another Pitney Bowes product called SpatialWare. When given an address, this software can return a list of items located within a specific geographic proximity.

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