Harford County’s Online GIS System Facilitates Real-Time Data Accessibility
Paul Muddiman uses GIS systems to prepare base maps for development sketch plans for clients. He uses GIS to research topography and property lines, elevation and tree lines, and even markings for streams.
Muddiman, vice president of Morris & Ritchie Associates, an architecture, engineering and planning firm, is one of many who use Harford County’s new online Geographic Information System (GIS) to access data and information in real time.
The Harford County online system (www.harfordcountymd.gov/GIS/) provides open access to the public for GIS data at no cost. Whether park information, or zoning overlays, roadway, topographic or parcel data, the information is available to the public for free at all times, says Brad Killian, director of the Harford County Department of Planning and Zoning.
In the past, community members and developers alike were required to contact the planning and zoning office to request that data be pulled. Then, it needed to be processed and mailed to those requesting the information. Now the process is much more efficient, as an office call is not needed nor is a wait for the information to arrive in the mail.
“There’s no required proof of need, no need to find the right person, no need to send a written request,” says Killian. “And data is not mailed on a disk to them. The turnaround used to be a week or longer.”
In addition, the “depth and breadth” of the system goes beyond typical requests and is more extensive than what could fit on a compact computer disk.
“Now they search on the site, and if we have it they can get it real time for free,” he adds.
Previously, data was current only to the date it was pulled from the system. Today, the information is constantly updated and is the most recent data available to the planning and zoning office.
According to Killian, the GIS “Track It” tool, one of the county’s GIS “Maps and Apps” functions, went live in the spring in response to a desire of County Executive Barry Glassman to make his administration more transparent.
The Track It tool was developed in house through ESRI mapping software and is geared to assist people doing research on zoning, rezoning or community development projects. The tool, which enables the download of files to be included in an individual application, has three tabs that provide further detail.
The “Board of Appeals” tab provides information on individual cases that are going through the county approval process or involve appeals for variances from zoning regulations. The site allows the user to click for more detail and investigate the case file. Map colors correspond to signage on the actual property that indicate the type of case – red is for Development Advisory Committee, which reviews all active development plans; black relates to Community Input Meetings, scheduled if a project is estimated to generate 250 traffic trips a day or more based on national engineering figures; and blue represents the Board of Appeals.
“(Citizens) can go back to the site and find out information without having to read the two-foot-by-three-foot sign while driving by,” Killian says.
Following the launch of this tracking portion of the site, the Department of Planning and Zoning has noticed a drop in telephone call volume. The site has generated 6,000 hits since it launched in March.
Maps and Apps also includes a section called “Plan It.” This provides a link to an online forum that invites citizen input. Administrated by third-party vendor Peak Democracy, Plan It is an online public engagement tool that enables public contributions to master planning and online town hall meetings. This enables the county to hold community meetings, workshops and open houses online instead of scheduling in the community at times that may be inconvenient for some people. It also gives county leaders an opportunity to pose specific questions to the public.
“It extends our outreach by allowing people to contribute online by open comment,” says Killian. “People are not always comfortable (at meetings) and they can expand on their comments.”
The site also gathers metric information about users like zip code and age, to give county staff an idea of who participates and where they live.
“Explore It” provides information about the county’s conservation and preservation programs. This app promotes projects like Arbor Day and a Walking Tour of Bel Air. Additional sites and programs will be added including guided tours, historical roadway information and parks information.
“All of the things we are able to develop in-house are efficient and cost-effective ways to provide information to the public,” notes Killian. “It makes us more efficient in doing our work because we spend less time answering questions from the people.”
William J. Vanden Eynden, broker and principal of BCV Commercial Realty LLC, does quite a bit of business in Harford County for local clientele and many regional and national companies and finds the GIS offerings through Harford County quite helpful.
“The Harford County Maryland Open GIS/Maps and Apps program is a very useful tool that enables us to quickly access important information that is necessary in determining whether or not a property is suited for a particular company or their intended use,” he says. “Information like zoning, demographics, environmental, historic records, easements and boundaries can all be found using this tool. This allows us to answer questions quickly for our customer base. This saves time since we no longer need to call the county to get this information as we had to in the past.”
Vanden Eynden acknowledges that the county staff was always helpful, but the old process consumed much of his company’s time and that of the county employees as well. “Now, in a matter of minutes, we can retrieve all of this valuable information; anywhere, 24/7!”
Muddiman adds that information gleaned from the site helps keep his colleagues and clients abreast of other projects underway, which they may not have learned about in the past.
“We can see what the competition is working on,” he says. “And our clients may be interested in some of those projects in the pipeline. Before it was never available; we just had to hear about it. This program is a great aid to our industry,” Vanden Eynden says. I95