Local governments are repositories for vast amounts of useful information that often never see the light of day. The City of Charlottesville’s new Geographic Information System web viewer changes that.
Remember the first time you Google mapped your own house? The city’s GIS viewer works a bit like that. Users can search properties by street address, owner’s name, zoning ID, or by a parcel’s sale date or price. The results are easy to navigate, a clean and simple map with additional layers to choose from like demographics, hydrography, economic development, and transportation. GIS maps emerged years ago, often as complex layered display interfaces designed for professional use.
Jamie White, a real estate agent with Montague, Miller & Co. who specializes in helping first-time buyers, praised the tool for streamlining complex information.
“Users can get a great visual of things like Charlottesville’s school zones, fire stations, city limits, flood zones, trails and topography,” White said. “The site is easy to navigate and saves a lot of time by consolidating all this information in one spot.”
According to Chris Gensic, a city park and trail planner, Geographic Information Systems have been improving efficiencies across the board for decades.
“There are so many industries in which GIS is completely changing everything,” Gensic said. “We have data on hard drives, but the real power lies in the computer’s ability to analyze and mix data sets.”
Layers of data are a key component of the city’s GIS web viewer, which draws on a vast number of public records scattered across city offices. Led by a cross-departmental team and supported by Worldview Solutions, a Richmond-based GIS consulting firm, development of the application took nine months to complete, at a cost of just under $30,000. It went live in the spring and can be accessed through the Charlottesville website homepage.
“The GIS web viewer opens a wealth of knowledge to people who don’t interpret maps all day,” Gensic said. “Now you don’t need software or a special skill set. More staff in each department can pull up the information.”
For example, he said, a Public Works employee can now pull up a map of the city and find a sewer pipe without having to wait or sift through other layers of irrelevant information. GIS will also allow fire and rescue, police, and other emergency service providers to reach people in need more efficiently by pinpointing properties, water lines, and access roads.
In addition to improving government efficiency, the tool allows citizens to gain new understanding of public and private properties.
White said she encourages potential homeowners to use the tool to check tax assessment values before purchasing. It’s also attractive to homebuyers, she said, because they can clearly see a property’s proximity to services they value like schools, hospitals, and walking trails.
“Looking at aerial maps really gives you a good idea of the area where you want to buy,” she said.
Gensic said house hunters aren’t the only ones who can benefit from the map viewer. When local development concerns come up, he said, residents can use GIS to “do some homework” and research the details on their own.
“When a piece of wooded land turns into a subdivision, people fear that a park has been destroyed,” he said. “Now users can turn on a map and check to see who the property owner is—whether an area is public parkland or simply a wooded area on private property. They can check for themselves before going to City Hall.”
In a town where citizens take an active role in the wellbeing of their community, universal access to local information—especially property and planning data—can improve the dialogue between public and private groups tremendously.
“It’s the difference between perception and reality,” Gensic said. “Everyone has access to the same knowledge, and that’s empowerment.”—Elizabeth Derby