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Internet Mapping Changes the Way County Does Business

Editor's note: This excerpt from the forthcoming Esri Press book, Measuring Up, Making the Business Case for GIS, outlines the return on investment (ROI) that Richland County, South Carolina, has enjoyed through its use of GIS. These ROI benefits include enhanced service through providing the public better access to government and improved work flows through increased efficiency and improved accuracy. In addition to better business processes, the county's GIS generates substantial income. Millions of dollars have been captured through identifying taxable properties that were missing from the tax rolls. Significant income—$50,000 in the first 12 months—is also being generated through licensing GIS data.

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Many datasets, including aerial photography, building footprints, street centerlines, and elevation data, can be licensed by the public. Developers, surveyors, real estate brokers, engineers, and architects have benefited from access to the data. Licensing data generated more than $50,000 in the first 12 months.

In Richland County, South Carolina, Internet mapping has changed the county's internal business procedures and the way it serves its citizens. The countywide GIS program was designed for a broad base of users that includes a number of GIS professionals, several data custodians, and many end users.

Richland County's customized Web interface, powered by Esri's ArcIMS and ArcSDE, provides county staff and the public with access to spatial information that ranges from property values and hydrologic flow direction to aerial photographs and elevation contours. The technology has enabled the county to save time, make informed decisions, automate work flows, and provide the public with convenient access to local government information.

Located in central South Carolina and home to Columbia, the state capital and county seat, Richland County has a long history of progressive thinking. In 1786, responding to demands for an inland local government, South Carolina lawmakers packed up from Charleston and went looking for a more central meeting point. The town they founded, Columbia, marks the first instance in modern history in which a functioning bureaucracy transferred its operations to a wilderness setting.

Business Processes Get Better

Before the GIS implementation, many departments had relied on paper-centric work flows that were often inefficient and inaccurate. County staff had previously prepared soil evaluations for building permits by manually looking up tables in paper logs and referring to old paper maps to find a specific location. With few spatial references on the maps, finding a site was difficult at best. The new Internet mapping system with a digital orthophotography backdrop enables a permitting clerk to determine the soil, slope, and vegetation cover at the exact location of new construction in a matter of seconds without extensive training in GIS. With this increase in efficiency, clerks can spend more time evaluating other aspects of the permitting process.

The county achieved similar results using GIS for flood insurance determination. Only paper flood insurance rate maps for Richland County published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency were available. Now, the GIS department maintains digital flood insurance rate maps in its spatial database and publishes them via ArcIMS to county employees and the public. In addition, users can refer to other data layers such as wetlands, ditches, surface flow accumulation, streams, and ponds. More accurate flood zone determinations are made in less time with the new procedure.

The GIS department maintains digital flood insurance rate maps in its spatial database and publishes them via ArcIMS to county employees and the public. Now, more accurate flood zone determinations can be made in less time.

Elevation data for all 700 square miles of Richland County is available in a variety of formats including two- and 10-foot contours, digital elevation models, digital terrain model points, and triangular irregular network data. This information supports the subdivision review and landscape planning analysis processes. The storm water manager and employees use GIS information on a daily basis to quickly browse surface runoff characteristics, elevation data, and impervious surfaces without having to spend additional time to complete in-depth analysis in a storm water modeling environment. The convenience of being able to view all of Richland County's GIS data from anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes provides excellent decision support, improves efficiency, and saves time and money.

Ensuring Quality Performance and Recovering Lost Revenue

Richland County ensures the quality of its GIS datasets with devices that alert technicians to possible discrepancies. Online users can search for an address, and the system will automatically zoom to the area of interest using a geocoding service. However, when the address entered cannot be located, the search phrase is inserted into a database for later review by the addressing department. Approximately one in 20 search phrases result in an error and only 10 percent of these require changes to the dataset. The Internet mapping application has verified the quality of Richland County's addressed street centerlines and provided an excellent data maintenance tool.

The Richland County assessor's office uses the mapping site extensively to perform reassessments and view census data and property boundaries. By examining online aerial photography, staff can determine if a property should be considered agricultural or otherwise, which eliminates the need to visit a parcel. A number of employees from the assessor's office use the site to locate hunt clubs and other properties with dwellings that have eluded taxation. The GIS Web tool has helped add several million dollars of revenue by identifying untaxed properties and adding them to the tax roll.

Employees at the treasurer's office use the mapping application to locate mobile homes that haven't been taxed, and the planning department locates illegal dump sites using the online aerial photography. The sheriff's department uses the application to visualize search patterns for fugitives, print maps to take into the field, and determine areas of increased criminal activity. Hundreds of maps are printed every day to assist in various departmental efforts that include going out into the field, posting zoning change notices and tax delinquent property signs, and reviewing permits.

Richland County also uses the ArcIMS application as part of a cost recovery/mitigation effort that involves licensing GIS data. Many datasets, including aerial photography, building footprints, street centerlines, and elevation data, are available to the public in exchange for a licensing fee. Data is distributed as hundreds of one-square-mile tiles. Developers, surveyors, real estate brokers, engineers, and architects place orders for GIS data via Richland County's online data ordering system, which uses ArcSDE and ArcIMS to display the tiling scheme and many of the data layers that may be licensed.

Users find an area of interest, select one or more tiles, and generate an invoice by choosing data layers with a user-friendly interface similar to most online shopping sites. When an order is placed, all the pertinent information is stored in a database and an e-mail is sent to a staff member who fills the order and collects payment. In less than one year, this system has generated more than $50,000.

The external use of Richland County's Internet mapping service is widespread. With approximately 1,000 unique visitors per day and more than 50,000 hits per day, the site has been a great success. Users include electric companies; engineers; surveyors; real estate brokers; insurance companies; banks; and personnel from the natural resources, commerce, and transportation departments. The applications for Internet mapping are extensive, and its ease of use has overcome the social and technological barriers that exist between GIS professionals and the people who can benefit the most from GIS.

To learn more about Richland County's GIS division, visit or contact Brian Fitzgerald, Richland County GIS programmer/analyst at or 803-576-2017.

DepartmentTaskROI for County
Assessor's officeLocates hunt clubs and other properties with dwellings that weren't previously being taxedSeveral million dollars' worth of untaxed property has been added to the tax roll since the program began.
Treasurer's officeUses the mapping application to locate mobile homes that have evaded taxes
Licensing GIS data as part of county's Cost Recovery Program Available to the public in exchange for a licensing fee $50,000 generated in the first 12 months and $87,000 as of July 2003
Benefits from Richland County's Internet mapping

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