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GIS and GPS Are at the Heart of a Thriving Information Hub
Greetings From Branson, Missouri!
Touted by the CBS program 60 Minutes as the "next Nashville," the city of Branson, Missouri, has been on a fast track of growth and accelerated tourism ever since that TV program aired in the early 1990s. Each year, theaters, live music, theme parks, and a multitude of outdoor recreation activities inject a billion dollars into this small city in the Ozark Mountains.
With a base population of slightly more than 6,000 inhabitants, Branson provides the majority of employment in a two-county area that supports 50,000 year-round residents. Not surprisingly, the yearly pilgrimage of more than seven million visitors, as many as 70,000 a day, has a significant impact on the infrastructure of the city.
The short- and long-term impact of the growth in tourism was apparent to the city's Engineering Department; so, in the early 1990s, the department began requesting plats, plans, and engineering designs in digital format to prepare for a future GIS program. In 1994, the Engineering Department purchased its first mapping system, and a one-person GIS Department was charged with data collection, GIS implementation, and spatial data management.
While converting the planimetric and contour data for the GIS, the staff began to reach the limitations of the current system's ability to set up and run a full GIS database. In early 1996, the staff began researching other GIS solutions, and in 1997, the department moved the GIS to an Esri software-based system running on Windows NT 4.0. ArcInfo was established as the development and maintenance tool, and ArcView software was set up for other users to learn how to use the GIS and to view and analyze maps and related data.
In 1999, the city contracted Esri Business Partner Surdex Corporation (Chesterfield, Missouri) to generate a two-foot contour map and digital orthophotos at six-inch resolution and 100-foot scale. The deliverables also included planimetric data, which helped the city document building footprints, bridges, dams, golf greens, boat docks, trails, parking spaces, vegetation, and just about every natural or man-made feature impacted by the millions of visitors.
GPS Enters the Picture
The city's first GPS system, purchased with the help of the Public Works Department because of its need to collect location information on sewer manholes, fire hydrants, etc., was a six-channel receiver that proved to be cumbersome, both in the field and back in the office, and required extensive postprocessing and conversion to integrate the collected data. In 2001, it began the search for a system based on the following criteria: subfoot accuracy levels for specific engineering and site development planning, ease of use in the field, portability, durability, and an integrated single source solution for GPS data collection and software processing.
After considering five different product options, the GIS Department selected Leica Geosystems' GS50 GPS/GIS system, a fully expandable GPS/GIS surveying system that met all of its criteria, with the added advantage of capturing data directly in shapefile format (even in dense forest canopies). The equipment's real-time method of data collection transfers field data directly as shapefile or .txt formats, thereby accelerating integration with other GIS data and imagery and avoiding error by eliminating the typical postprocessing and conversion processes.
Now equipped with the GS50, the first order of Business was to re-create the department's attribute code list. This was done simply and quickly using Leica GIS DataPRO office software to import the existing code list from ArcView in native Esri shapefile format.
"We were able to re-create our code list exactly in the GS50 virtually on the fly because of the GIS DataPRO software," says Curtis Copeland, Branson's GIS manager. "This saved us several man-hours of keying in the code list by hand. Almost immediately, we were ready to go into the field and collect new data."
The GS50 was soon put to the test when the GIS Department was asked to map the aging Lake Taneycomo waterfront area--in less than two months and in time for an upcoming election. This older part of the city is being considered for a major revitalization project that would add a new convention center and expanded retail operations and enhance the area's historical landmarks. To the delight of all, it took just two weeks for the GIS team to map the area using the GS50 and GIS DataPRO software.
"We were able to locate the sewer and water lines and other historical structures accurately, and quickly generate new maps in ArcView," explains Copeland. "This really helped developers, planners, and politicians consider the options and costs of relocating or rebuilding certain infrastructure elements as they begin to give this area a total facelift."
As a result, the city purchased the Lake Taneycomo area and is considering proposals for developing and enhancing this part of the city.
Branson's GIS staff, now a two-person operation, uses the GS50 to collect a wide variety of geographic features for water and sewer infrastructure management, street and traffic sign inventories, preservation and education of cultural and historical places and features, addressing, street centerline data, sidewalks, and fire hydrants.
For the Planning Department, collecting accurate data from the remote areas of the city is saving valuable time in the planning process. "In hilly areas, some of the sewer lines are buried eight, 10, or 12 feet below ground," says Chris Coulter, Branson's assistant planning director. "GPS allows us to rapidly identify lateral arms, routes, and other parts of the public sanitary system so we can update the database with property owner information and other data, all while saving tremendous time on the back end."
Better data collection has helped the city tap into federal grant money for tree mapping and maintenance programs (Branson is designated as a Tree City USA participant by the National Arbor Day Foundation) and for converting high-density areas with private septic tanks to city sewer services to protect the groundwater and stream quality.
The city of Branson's GIS is the center of infrastructure management and economic planning for the city and the region. Undoubtedly the returns on the city's investment are tangible. The expansion of the GIS department's in-house capabilities has, in some cases, eliminated the need for spending thousands of dollars on outside consulting and enabled it to become increasingly independent. Engineering consultants, real estate firms, and residents are making use of the data, and the GIS Department has seen a vast improvement in its ability to respond to requests for information. "People are much, much better informed now, which in the long run saves the city time and money," notes Coulter.
Positioning for the Future
Today, the GPS data, in combination with Branson's Esri software-based GIS, is at the heart of a thriving information hub that supports every major city department and is helping to pave the way for the region to attract tourists well into the future.
With the GIS now running on both Windows NT and Windows 2000 platforms, Copeland's vision is to shift from a centralized architecture to an enterprise system that will enable each department to access the database from the desktop. "Our desire is to develop a citywide Intranet system to foster the increasing use of the GIS data," he says.
The move to ArcGIS 8 is expected to open up new avenues for analyzing more complex geospatial data relationships. "We look forward to being able to export and import different data sets to users of different software packages, such as local engineers running CAD software, as well as improving management of our existing data sets using the ArcCatalog application in ArcGIS," says Copeland.
How do the tourists benefit from GIS? In addition to the Lake Taneycomo project, the GIS Department's GPS/GIS expertise is playing a lead role in a newly formed consortium that is developing a regional interconnected trail system for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and other outdoor activities for the younger demographic groups the area hopes to attract in the future.