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Fall 2004
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City of Buffalo, New York, Uses GIS to Automate "Call Before You Dig"

The city of Buffalo, New York, is a city famous for chicken wings, snowy winters, and professional sports franchises, such as the Bills and Sabres. Perhaps less known is the fact that the city is entrenched with technology that can be summed up by a nickname—the Buffalo Byte. An excellent demonstration of maximizing technological innovations, specifically in the geospatial sector, would be the city's use of GIS technology at the Department of Public Works, specifically in the Traffic Engineering Division (TED).

TED was facing a paper nightmare dealing with "tickets." A ticket is the term used to define an underground utility excavation request coming in from Dig Safely New York (Upstate New York's Call Before You Dig Center). Tickets would come in at the rate of 100 per day, every day, over a fax modem connection. Each ticket would be individually printed and cross-checked against drawings for underground interconnect cables and conduits running under and between signalized intersections. As development and construction increased in the city, the number of underground excavation requests increased. This pattern began to alarm TED as the staff realized they could not keep up with the demand.

Call Before You Dig—A Process

In Upstate New York, all utility operators must comply with 16 NYCRR Part 753 (also cited as Industrial Code 53 or Code Rule 753), a law that requires safe excavation practices and ensures the protection of underground facilities in New York state (for more information on Code Rule 753, visit Dig Safely New York on the Web at The process of notifying utility operators of planned excavations involves the generation of a ticket. Each ticket's origin can be traced back to a contractor or utility company that is planning to use machine-operated equipment to excavate a site.

The contractors (e.g., construction, plumbing, landscaping, fencing) or utility companies (e.g., water, sewer, electric, gas, conduit) file the tickets for these future excavations with Dig Safely New York. Serving as the facilitator, Dig Safely New York routes the tickets on to the utilities that should be notified of the planned dig. The utility operator (upon receiving a ticket) must then perform a stakeout (if needed) on the site using flags, posts, or spray paint to mark the location of its buried utilities.

Currently, TED is responsible for 665 traffic signals; most contain conduit buried at each intersection. TED constantly receives virtual real-time tickets at the annual rate of 18,000. Having invested in GIS data and Esri technology, including several licenses of ArcView 9, TED wanted to use its current land base information (street centerlines and parcels for the city of Buffalo) in conjunction with its digitized utility data to perform location-based analysis on each ticket-in an ArcView 9 environment. In addition, the process had to be electronic, automated, and database driven.

"We needed something to help us as our staff size kept decreasing and the volume of tickets kept increasing," says John Bidell, city of Buffalo Traffic Engineering Division. "Printing 100 tickets a day is not the way this should be done. We realized that there should be a solution out there to make this a simple process."

GIS Handles the Call

TED quickly located a solution using the Esri Partner Directory on and developers as search criteria. It quickly contracted with the Geospatial Division of Bergmann Associates in Buffalo, New York, to acquire a unique, off-the-shelf product called Dig-Smart, an extension to ArcGIS 9.x that automates the Call Before You Dig process in the ArcView environment.

Using the extension, the city was able to automate the entire Call Before You Dig process. This included receiving the ticket requests electronically from Web servers, geocoding each request within ArcView using parcels and street centerline address ranges, producing work orders for each request that required a stakeout, and contacting the excavator via e-mail or fax with the status of each ticket. Using the power and level of GIS sophistication provided in ArcView and Dig-Smart, TED was able to automatically generate detailed work orders of each ticket location as it was received and send them to the excavator in near real time.

In addition, TED was now able to report on all Dig Safely New York tickets using Dig-Smart reporting features. These included queries by date, street name, type of ticket, and owner, as well as a shapefile referencing the location of each ticket that had entered its system. The reports are used to check back on the number of tickets coming in on a daily basis, as well as to monitor duplicate ticketing and geographic assignment of staking crews.

"It's nice to be able to print a map of the stakeout locations and hand it to our signal superintendent," says Eric Schmarder, city of Buffalo Traffic Engineering Division. "Now he doesn't have to waste time deciding what would be the most efficient route to take."


With the implementation of the Bergmann Associates software, the Traffic Engineering Division's staff now has the ability to track and analyze all Call Before You Dig requests within a relational database and ArcView software-based environment. City response times to each request have improved drastically. Historically, it might have taken up to two days to respond to a ticket using the print and research method. Using Esri software-based technology within ArcView, that time has been reduced to minutes. In a day and age of efficiency, cost savings, and return on investment, the city staff has been empowered to become more productive with other aspects of the Traffic Engineering Division's operations. Not only does this help TED become more productive, it also removes the burden from city employees of printing, researching, and filing 20,000 pieces of paper.

"Our new system has enabled us to counteract some of the effects of downsizing," says Bidell. "The simplified process gives us more flexibility when distributing work."

Next Steps

Since the city of Buffalo is currently standardizing all GIS operations within the Department of Public Works using ArcGIS, an enterprise version of Dig-Smart will be needed to service these systems. This environment would allow each division within the department to process its Dig Safely New York tickets while maintaining continuity on the back end using one centralized DBMS and ArcSDE data layers as source files.

For more information, contact Eric Schmarder, city of Buffalo Traffic Engineering Division (tel.: 716-851-5538, e-mail:, or Jeff Volpe, GIS Business Segment manager, Bergmann Associates (tel.: 800-724-1168, ext. 282; e-mail:

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