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Mapping County’s GIS Bureau

Location is everything.

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Mary Beth Fletcher, Bureau Chief

— A small staff in the county office building knows where to find everything in Arlington, down to the square foot.

Twenty-odd years ago, county government offices stored "location information" on paper in file cabinets. Data related to the functions of the particular office rarely were shared, and even more rarely coordinated with information from other offices. As the usefulness of computers was established, a decision was made to gather the dispersed data in digital format. The GIS Mapping Center Bureau was born.

"GIS" stands for "geographical information system." It is a blend of mapmaking, statistical analysis and database technology. The end product is "a map" displaying the position of whatever information interests the requester. Take fire call response time, for example. Arlington Fire Department wished to determine how far, in four minutes and other minute increments, its rolling equipment at each fire station could respond to an emergency call. Page after page of text would provide the answers, depending on routes driven and points reached in the given time. Answers now can be seen with a glance at marks drawn on a one-sheet county map or on a computer screen. Better decisions then could be made on where to build new fire stations to enhance public safety.

"Much data considered by county officials and staff are related to 'location.' My hope is that Arlington County decision-makers increase use of the large body of information we have available," said Mary Beth Fletcher, bureau chief of the GIS Mapping Center.

Find One’s Own Map

Arlington's GIS products can be accessed through http://gis.arlingtonva.us

"Google does a great job for quick reference," said Fletcher. She adds that information provided for its vast range of territory is not 100 per cent accurate due to the company's business model, but it performs a most useful service to the ordinary user. "However," Fletcher said, "our standard of GIS accuracy for Arlington is 100 per cent" because vital decisions are made that affect everyone living and working in the county.

"The GIS unit has a way of representing complicated ideas so that anyone can understand them," said John C. Snyder, management analyst for the fire department. In terms of graphic excellence, he continues, "they are underestimated. Some staffs in county government do not know the capabilities of the unit; consequently, they miss out on valuable and available assistance."

"My hope is that Arlington County decision-makers increase use of the large body of information we have available."

— Mary Beth Fletcher

The Real Estate Bureau is one county office that appreciates GIS Mapping Center’s work. One of the most basic and important publications of the county is the "red book." Its official title is "Plat Book of Arlington County." In cooperation with the Clerk of the Circuit Court, recorded documents involving real estate (such as deeds and subdivision plats) are transformed into a series of large-scale maps placed between red covers for the use of county staff and the general public. Reference copies in the Central Library and in the County Court House are available to anyone for the asking. Each piece of land is assigned a mapping number (the "Real Property Code," or "RPC"). Anyone can trace the history of a single parcel and other county offices, such as the tax assessors, can avoid errors and perform their duties more effectively.

"It is really nice to be responsive — quickly," said Uri Arkin, Real Estate Bureau chief. His context was the daily inquiries regarding a specific property received in his office from other parts of county government, as well as from developers, utility companies and others.

After referring to the many databases created by the GIS Mapping Center, Arkin notes that the bureau's highly professional work can be expanded. To illustrate, easements and rights-of-ways on individual pieces of real estate never were gathered in one place. Many such limited rights to access and to use of a given parcel of land are found in papers scattered across county records. The Real Estate Bureau and the GIS Mapping Bureau have discussed creating a record of all known easements and rights-of-way county-wide, one capable of being retrieved in map form. The benefits from this project would be substantial. Electric and gas companies and county departments dealing with emergencies often need to know immediately where they have the right to dig and the right to enter upon private property. "Today," said Arkin, "such information is not readily at hand. We have to say 'We do not know.' This results in delay that can affect public safety and public convenience."

In terms of "unfinished business," Fletcher cites the easements/right-of-way project, but remains hopeful that resources can be made available, one day, to pursue this project. She also foresees many new applications of on-line GIS data in the building permit system.

Asked to identify accomplishments of her bureau over the past two decades, Fletcher said, "Original conversion from paper to electronic format in only two years is one highlight. Another one is the number of data layers currently available; we now have 300 or so." (One "data layer" is a blank county map upon which all the instances of a single item occur; e.g., fire hydrants, 36-inch storm water drains, or county-owned facilities.) Continuing, she said, "The transition from a curiosity, an unknown, to an integral part of planning and day-to-day operations has been very satisfying. Above all is the process of assembling the staff. We are five cartographers and three systems analysts, plus me, for a total of nine employees. Everyone is great to be around, both as a professional and as a person."

A number of existing GIS databases are non-public, that is, only for internal use by county staff. Fletcher supports access to as much of her bureau's work products as possible, but recognizes that decisions on public availability rest with the office collecting the information.

This question was posed: Cost and every other restriction removed, what single thing would you ask for to improve your operation? Fletcher's response was: "One full-time staff programmer so we could process requests more quickly."

Fletcher retires on Oct. 18. She believes Arlington's GIS program is one of the strongest in the region and worth every penny of its $900,000 annual appropriation. With respect to a successor, Fletcher is confident that the person selected will continue to improve and to expand the scope of services. She also hopes the new chief will enjoy both the work and the co-workers as much as she has.