Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have come a long way. From the question of “What is GIS?” to “What can it do for me?” to “You can build that?” The science and organizational capabilities of GIS is why it continues to grow as one of the most integral parts of today’s enterprise organizations including city government.
One example of a city that has taken the science of GIS to new levels is the City of Norfolk, VA. Led by Fraser Picard, GIS Bureau Technology Manager, the city has made strides that have elevated them to poster child status, showing that a strong GIS program can make everyone’s life better.
Having been with the city since 1994, Picard has been a leader in incorporating GIS solutions. He gained notoriety in 2012 by developing, with his team, STORM — System to Track, Organize, Record and Map. The program has enabled city workers to more accurately report and map damage from storms and simultaneously push that data out to residents online. The application has had excellent reviews and the results pre- and post-Hurricane Irene were tremendous.
Combining imagery and GIS
But one of Picard’s ongoing successes has been the incorporation of Pictometry® aerial imagery into the City of Norfolk GIS program starting in 2004. Following an example of a neighboring jurisdiction, Norfolk was aware that the young Pictometry International (founded in 2000) had captured its first imagery in the spring of 2001 and delivered its first complete library to Arlington County, VA. The imagery was used by the Arlington County Fire Department during the response to the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon. Pictometry was also the first company to be allowed to fly Ground Zero to help in the search, rescue and recovery efforts.
Norfolk followed with their first flights in 2004. They incorporated a desktop imagery viewing application at the same time, Pictometry’s Electronic Field Study (EFS). Developed to view, interact and extract data from the imagery, EFS was unique in that it allowed users to measure not only distances and areas, but heights as well, all through the use of a single image. This surpassed the technology at that time in which involved the use of two or more overlapping images in order to extract any height information or vertical measurements.
Pictometry is now being used within eighteen Norfolk City departments. The assessment department is one of the top users of the imagery and software. As an early adopter, the City of Norfolk worked side-by-side with Pictometry as the company revolutionized the assessment market by allowing assessors to do more work from their desktop than ever before. The oblique imagery, invented by Pictometry, provided a forty-five degree view of structures allowing for views that had never been seen on a desktop before. The improved communication surrounding the selection of comparable properties to constituents, significantly reduced the number of costly appeals for the city. In many states, assessment guidelines and regulations were modified to incorporate this new capability.
Identifying change and measuring impervious surfaces
“We are now looking at incorporating a new product from Pictometry that was released in 2013, CONNECTAssessment™,” stated Picard. “We are already utilizing the dual pane feature in POL to identify year-over-year change. If we are able to utilize CONNECTAssessment we will be able to view the changes along with doing analysis and assignment online in the cloud. It is what we need to make our assessment office even better.”
With the extreme growth of Pictometry Intelligent Imagery® in the assessment market, many jurisdictions have missed opportunities to integrate the imagery throughout other departments, but not in Norfolk. “We also use the imagery inside of PictometryOnline™ to measure building surfaces, determining impervious areas that will not drain,” said Picard. “Commercial properties pay a fee on impervious square footage to help with storm water control and flooding.” Today, PictometryOnline has been replaced with CONNECTExplorer™.
Moving to the cloud
PictometryOnline (POL) was developed in 2006 to allow users to access Pictometry images via the Internet. In 2010, the CONNECT™ platform launched incorporating POL as one of many online tools for imagery consumption and analysis. This cloud-based software solution offered the functionality and benefits of the EFS desktop solution remotely through a simple web browser.
In 2014, Picard led the city in an important change, moving from server edition, a locally hosted software that followed EFS, to the CONNECT platform. “With eighteen departments utilizing Pictometry imagery we had to have a strong online solution. I have personally trained more than 700 employees over the last 10 years. We currently have 300 who are using the systems daily,” stated Picard. “We had to have a system that was easy to upgrade, easy to train and overall easy to use. With the new CONNECTAdmin functionality it was exactly what we needed.”
“The transition was so smooth it was like driving a new car on new pavement,” said Picard, smiling. “I don’t think people even knew the difference. We had to set up GIS layers in CONNECTAdmin which worked really well. The staff from Pictometry gets the credit. They understood our system making the transition very easy. It was great and I was very happy.”
“When we first got EFS in 2004, I thought I would only need to train about seventeen people. Not so; the popularity of the product exploded and prior to EFS, I would ask people to commit three days of GIS training. That was a huge commitment for a very busy staff,” noted Picard. “Now with the CONNECT platform we have trainings a couple of times a year and reduced the training class to half of a day. Word has spread on how easy it is to use and how powerful it is for data collection and analysis. I have people asking to get on board constantly.”
“The list of use cases goes on and on,” continued Picard. “The legal departments uses it for court cases, assessor for assessment appeals, planning to check vegetation violations along the Chesapeake Bay buffer protection areas. Our events coordinator uses it for park events for booths, vendor communications and researching new and different areas. Our public arts manager uses it to research and investigate suitable areas for placing art. Everyone uses it every day for presentations including the city council for their short and long-term planning.”
Creating new applications
Using Pictometry imagery, Picard’s team has also built numerous applications including Norfolk AIR (Address Information Resource). They developed it to aggregate property data along with imagery from as far back as 2004 with the goal of viewing properties over time. Making it accessible to the public they now see over a thousand hits a day and believe that without the photos there would not be this level of interest. City officials and residents now share common imagery and information when reviewing building codes, set-backs and property development.
“The City of Norfolk has been an amazing long-term customer who truly has embraced the importance of Pictometry imagery and solutions,” stated Robert Locke, Senior Vice President of EagleView Government Sales. “Fraser’s leading role incorporating the technology into all of the departments has provided a model for other GIS departments and jurisdictions.”
“Pictometry is part of our culture and our overall organizational success,” concluded Picard. “If anyone tried to cut it, I would have eighteen departments yelling, so it is clear that it is not just the GIS office that needs and depends on this technology. It should never be under just one department. For GIS solutions and Pictometry imagery, the more people using it the better the investment.“