E-Docs Asset GIS in Washington County, Iowa

A 1.370Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Crooked Creek and the Checauque are here. A salubrious climate and exceedingly rich soil bless this County. Adam Ritchey was its earliest pioneer who was warned as he left Illinois to settle here that "the Gospel will never cross the Mississippi." Since 1838 when lots sold for $38 in "Slaughter County," it has been a refuge to many industrious individuals and industries. Opha and Joseph Kilgore were early engineers on the Underground Railroad helping slaves escape in the late 19th century. Once the iron railroad arrived in 1858, roads, bridges, and culverts began to stretch across Washington County, Iowa (renamed from Slaughter) to facilitate "prairie life". Today many of these structures are still used to support the population of 21,300 residents. Since this time land surveys, maps, and many other documents have been generated by professionals to record and account for their industry. Entire rooms of the Washington County Engineer’s offices are used to store and retrieve these important, one-of-a-kind documents. Every year countless more plans, drawings, and records are added to the archives to support the county infrastructure of roads, buildings, culverts, signs, survey monuments, driveways, land corners, and bridges.

The opportunity cost of not having this type of information readily available to a wide user group is growing. The lack of an integrated, fully developed knowledge management solution will become more a necessity than a luxury. Until recently this warehouse of information was accessible only by trained personnel in the County Engineer’s office. If requested, retrieval of one of these documents may take one to dozens of hours to locate, maybe more; or maybe never, if previously misfiled. Once retrieved, it may have required special handling to avoid damaging the aged paper or fabric. The deteriorating courthouse plans of 1885 are there. Right-of-way plats and legal descriptions from the 1920’s reside in the archives. Land corner records and drawings for the earliest stone corners constructed in 1848 can be found here. Filed in a box somewhere is D. E. Brumback’s easement from 1928. All of the County’s bridges and its biennial bridge inspection records for its approximate 250 bridges are here. Strip maps up to 12 feet in length are kept rolled up in boxes in a closet.

All of this information shares a common characteristic: it relates to features that exist spatially within the County. Earlier this year, modern GIS and document management technology was deployed to exploit these characteristics and to build an enterprise asset management GIS system. The majority of the asset documents and data warehouse was digitized and published to a webbased Geographical Information System (GIS) so the entire collection could be "instantly retrieved under a mouse." The data warehouse is now available to the world at all times on the web. The practical and financial benefits of this are just now being realized. As the data is updated over time and users continue to exploit the system, it should have a tremendous return on investment (ROI).

Project Conception and Implementation
As the Washington County Engineer I knew that a well-defined problem is much easier to solve, and that, once defined, it increases the chances of arriving at a good plan. To that end, I began by assembling a team of in-house information "experts" and potential users of the new system to define the scope of the knowledge management system:
1. the types of documents and data in our office,
2. how often each type of information is retrieved, and
3. the importance (or value) of that information to targeted users like surveyors, engineers, realtors, historians, developers, and land use planners.

After Aerial Services, Inc. (ASI) from Cedar Falls, Iowa was asked to design the E-Docs Asset GIS, Mike Tully, President of ASI, helped establish goals for the information management system:
1. Serve as an off-site digital backup of the historical records (documents and files),
2. Have a web interface to facilitate easy, instant access and a second, more intuitive `geospatial’ portal to the same information
3. Limit public web access to some records and from public terminals in the County office.

Priorities for each asset were established based on potential costs and returns if added to the Asset Management GIS. The County’s Microsoft Access and Excel databases developed over the years were reviewed for inclusion in the new information system. These tables turned out to be quite advantageous to the County because they were easily ingested into the new asset management GIS resulting in considerable cost savings.

A key component of the project that helped keep costs down was ASI’s expertise identifying the minimum fields of information on each form, index card, and map required to facilitate rapid retrieval of it and all related assets. Mr. Tully understood that as long as high resolution scans of the entire document were instantly retrievable, any ancillary information needed by the user could be read directly from the high resolution scanned documents. Avoiding unnecessary data entry resulted in substantial cost savings. Finally, a design document was written that defined the desired inputs, outputs and user-interface requirements of the system required to make it easy to use and that would preserve data integrity.

Project Execution
After defining the project scope and goals, the project team began to sample the different historical asset types. The Assistant Engineer, Lyle Moen, had worked in the office for 36 years and was the resident expert on all the assets and asset documentation. He proved to be a key contributor to the project’s success because he could readily identify those documents and databases that had the importance and required integrity to be included in the project. Mr. Moen understood the nature of each type of asset and its related documentation, and many of the problems that could arise when trying to describe each document like inconsistent or erroneous data recorded on the documents, the use of different forms for an asset over time, and inconsistent attributes of the asset documents. For example, bridges are now assigned a 6-digit Federal FHWA number; however, in the 1930’s this number was not used for bridges. These types of issues and the rules to appropriately handle them had to be developed before entering data in the system.

We then began to inventory, collect, and sort the diverse array of asset documentation: letter-sized forms, 24" x36" maps and design drawings, strip maps up to 12′ long, 3" x 5" index cards and photographs of varying sizes. All needed to be counted and sorted so ASI personnel could quickly scan and describe each piece. (We considered doing much of the scanning and data entry ourselves to reduce costs, but realized it would take us years to complete it. We knew that the GIS would not be used until search results were dependable.) ASI completed the project in months and facilitated a much more rapid ROI.

Asset GIS Design
To achieve the goal of providing quick access to all the asset information, either spatially using a map or by reading key fields, the home page provided links to each asset type and a single link ("MAPS") to the geospatial portal. If a specific asset type link is clicked, a list of all those assets is displayed showing a group of key fields that describe each asset (Figure 2). The specific key fields displayed on this screen were determined by our staff. Each asset type has a single index key (e.g., Land Corner ID), which can be clicked
to display the detailed information about a specific asset (Figure 3). High resolutions scans were compressed in one of several common formats (e.g., MrSid, jpeg2000, PDF) to ensure maximum readability and minimize data storage requirements.

Accessing the identical information from an interactive map (GIS) is possible by clicking on the MAPS link (Figure 3). This takes the user to a map server (e.g., ESRI ArcIMS) that contains any number of base map layers like orthophotography, road centerlines that add content and useful information to each asset type layer (Figure 4).

The display of all asset and base map layers are controlled using the right panel. Several standard tools are available on the left panel to zoom, pan, query, and measure. In addition to these tools, special search and hot link tools are available so the user can click on any asset and get detailed information about that asset. For example, when Hot Link is selected and the user clicks anywhere within a section, the user is presented with a list of all ROW plats that border the section (Figure 5). Other useful tools include Search TRS that allows the user to type in a specific township, range, and section, and then automatically zoom to it. The Query tool allows a user to search the attributes for any asset type for a specific value.

Data Updates
Another key design requirement was to enable county personnel to update the database as new information is acquired because new documents and GPS data about assets located in the field are collected constantly. If this new information is not added to the Asset Management GIS, it will become outdated and less useful. Therefore, a simple ArcObjects tool was designed for an ArcMap editor’s use (Figure 7). The tool allows County personnel to either import large numbers of records from existing databases or import records one at a time. Once new asset records are imported, the spatial location is digitized on the county map and linked to that record.

Instant retrieval of detailed asset information is possible using the Search tool included on the website (Figure 6). This provides the fastest, most direct access to the asset information. It is extremely flexible and intuitive. Advanced searches for specific values in any field of any asset can be executed using combo boxes and natural English (Figure 8).

There were sufficient security concerns related to releasing all this information to the public website. To facilitate granular security, the Asset E-Docs GIS can be configured so any subset of information can be published on the public website while the entire information store is available internally at the County Engineer’s office.

Lessons Learned
The management team did a good job identifying the scope of the project. However, this process did require more time than anticipated because of the age and variability of the historical documentation. It is important to involve the managers, technicians, users, and designers early in this process so the system delivers the optimum information with the available resources and makes the greatest ROI. Issues about which data to include, which fields to index, defining rules required to handle exceptional data, user interface design, and performance specifications, required thorough discussion and review by the project group. We observed that "different personnel were required to carry the vision and implement the details of the project." It was a bonus that a "data expert," someone intimately familiar with the information, participated in the project. Not only did Mr. Moen understand how one type of information logically related to another, but he had a good understanding of the type of data problems or inconsistencies that could occur because the information was acquired over many decades and could be erroneous, missing, or inconsistent. For example, standard forms used to record information today are different from those used in the 1970’s. An important part of this success was the development of the rules to ensure that document data can be consistently described, indexed to the other related documents, and subsequently retrieved despite the original document condition.

Mr. Tully suggests that asset management systems should focus on tying all of an agency’s information together and making it available in a manner that is supportive of the agency’s mission. A large part of these GIS systems will be focused on enabling communications so that an agency can tap into its greatest knowledge base, its employees and historical information. The benefits of the E-Docs Asset GIS are manifold. It was designed to be simple and elegant. Its component parts are created using common technology (e.g., large-format scanners, compression software like Adobe PDF, GIS software like ESRI ArcMap, geospatial web servers like ESRI ArcIMS, and database technology like Microsoft SQLServer or Access). Other benefits included:
• Instant retrieval
• Internal and public access
• Less staff time retrieving & filing docs
• Data duplication cost reductions
• Archival & Preservation asset documentation
• Construction of logical relationships between different asset types including location
• Elimination of ancillary software applications
• Continuous update of asset records
• Easily expandable to include additional asset-types
• Data standards and data validation guarantees

Whether Washington County is ever renamed back to Slaughter County or if more asset information is needed to support the County’s continual development, they will always have up-to-date, globally accessible information for land planners, engineers, surveyors and the public. The County’s ROI on the EDocs Asset Management GIS will grow with each passing website hit.

Note: The Washington County E-Docs Asset GIS can be assessed at www.sidwellmaps.com/website/washington_asset_public/

Dave Patterson is the County Engineer in Washington, Iowa.

Surveyor Benefits

Local land surveyors are discovering a growing dependence on this site since its development. All good surveys start with good research. Providing as much information as possible is critical to helping surveyors do the most accurate work possible. Using this website from their location surveyors are able to quickly find and review all pertinent information about a specific land corner. If they are working in a specific section, they can do an instant section/ township/ range search and pull up everything in that section (ROW plats, section corners, road plans, railroad plans). If the surveyor is looking for a specific corner, they can use the map to zoom to that corner using the detailed orthophoto and basemap background for guidance and pull up all the relevant information, including the section corner certificate.

The GIS also has two variants of geographic coordinates for each land corner: surveyed or assumed. By listing these coordinates the surveyor can determine the relative accuracy of the corner location. If "assumed" coordinates are listed, then the corner has not been surveyed and is assumed to be in that location. If listed with "surveyed" coordinates, then that point has been surveyed (and verified) with high accuracy GPS.

All of this is possible without the surveyor making a trip to the County Engineer’s office, saving valuable time and energy. The County benefits by not having to dedicate staff to process these queries and re-file the documents. Surveying will never be the same!

A 1.370Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE