May 23, 2012 By Wayne Hanson
Bexar County, Texas – with its county seat in San Antonio -- covers 1,300 square miles and has more than 1.5 million residents. The county’s name – now pronounced “bear” – originally came from a town in Spain. Soon, however, those who wish to drill down into county information can do so if a pilot project is successful. More detailed information about the county will be available to county staff, residents and the public through GIS.
Bexar County, for example, lists 117 mortgage foreclosures for June 2012. The county GIS allows users to click on icons representing those foreclosures and zoom into a street location map, see the assessed value, ZIP code, square footage of living area, year built, number of rooms, as well as detailed property information that includes taxes, ownership and more.
While traditional GIS can be a difficult technology to navigate, the Bexar County On-Demand Mapping project (BCOM) uses ARCGIS Explorer, a free application from Esri, granting novice users access to the wealth of geographic information contained in the county’s GIS database. Even better, clicking on a question mark in the top right corner of the map brings up a menu of 21 staff-produced videos, that demonstrate how to use the various GIS capabilities in that application.
Foreclosures is one data set currently available to the public, but if the BCOM pilot is successful, said Bexar County Information Technology eServices Manager Todd Alvis, the county will publish it -- along with the wealth of GIS data it currently consumes -- out to the public.. Since the pilot went live two months ago, said Alvis, internal users have grown from 25 licensed GIS “power users” to 325 county staff who can now access the GIS data for work projects.
“The District Attorney’s Office is using it for evidence gathering,” Alvis said. “Community Resources will use it to collect demographic data for grants applications. Economic Development is using it for gathering parcel information for future business prospects.” And the data can be customized, Alvis said. “Each department has their different needs, so we go in and try to tailor it to those needs.”
Alvis is enthusiastic about GIS and its ability to conceptualize information. “We wanted to use it for county staff, because GIS is about location, and the data behind that location. … For example, if you have a set of crime data out there you have these addresses – this murder occurred here, this burglary occurred on the other side of town, so you just have an Excel spreadsheet of where this stuff occurred. If you see it on a map, you can visualize it, and you can run analytics against it, to find the hot spots, and you can assign sheriff, police, etc., to those hot spots. The sky is the limit.”
Esri will award the county a Special Achievement in GIS Award during this July’s International User Conference, to be held in San Diego. A company release said the county's use of GIS has created a more informed environment for constituents, and cites the foreclosure website as well as Community Dashboard and Parks Reservation System.
Alvis said development was relatively inexpensive and primarily involved staff time over a two-month period.
All over the country, community leaders are looking to boost economic development through various initiatives. One key element in many of those initiatives is the use of information technology. When local governments build IT infrastructure, create e-government applications, assist high-tech startups or otherwise focus on technology, they create conditions that draw businesses to their communities and help retain skilled workers. This paper discusses and provides examples of these various ways local government can use technology to ultimately make a community more attractive to businesses, visitors and residents.