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Fall 2007

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URISA logo "Managing GIS"
A column from Members of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association

Listening and Learning: Secrets to GIS Success

By F. Peirce Eichelberger, GIS Manager, Chester County, Pennsylvania

Listening and learning are the secrets to building a successful GIS implementation with incredible support. I have several examples of how GIS can be used on a daily basis to improve the way government works, resulting in substantial new revenues and cost savings. I'd like to describe four areas of GIS use in Chester County that can be replicated anywhere. The first is the use of GIS to support the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in our Department of Emergency Services (DES). The second is our land record initiatives that tie the Recorder of Deeds, GIS, and Assessment departments together in a streamlined workflow using commercial software packages. The third is the use of GIS/GPS in our Parks Department to save preconstruction bid preparation costs. A fourth example is from our GIS Consortium experience. All these examples were generated from listening to our user agencies.

In 1999, GIS staff were asked to sit in on a presentation regarding the Limerick nuclear power plant (NPP). A large portion of the Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ) is in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The EPZ concept was new to us and was developed after the Three Mile Island nuclear event in 1979. We didn't really know much about the NPP activities but came to realize how useful GIS capabilities might be for DES in the event of an emergency incident. Shortly thereafter, we developed a simple capability that showed critical infrastructure, political boundaries, and the EPZ, and we shared it with DES. DES liked what it saw and asked if we could include "hydrology and other utilities." We said sure and added, "But let's not limit this just to the EPZ but go countywide as well." We have two nuclear plants on either side of the county: Peach Bottom in York County and Limerick in Montgomery County to the north. Pennsylvania has the second highest number of nuclear plants after Illinois, so we know that GIS capabilities will be critical during the next 40–50+ years.

Over the next several years, because we were listening, we added more functionality that was well received by DES. In 2003 and 2005, the county had experienced major flooding and wind events (more than 70 mph) that required activation of the EOC. Because we thought GIS would be useful to an incident regarding the NPPs, we really had full capability to support almost any event that necessitated EOC activation. My GIS staff play an integral role in the EOC, and the GIS has proved invaluable over the years. We are continuing our development of the use of GIS in support of the EOC, and by listening, we are doing a much better job. We received a National Association of Counties (NACo) award for the use of GIS to support the EOC.

The second example of the need for listening was our development of a modern land record front end to our GIS efforts. Our county administrator wanted to develop a tie between the GIS maps and addresses and the recorded deeds showing daily property transfers. The title/abstract/legal community wanted the county to improve the record processing flow so it would be easier to process and access various county land records. By using Pennsylvania's innovative 1988 Uniform Parcel Identifier (UPI) initiative, we were able to tie together packaged automation for the Recorder of Deeds, our Assessment Department, and all of our GIS maps and situs (location) addresses. This tie means that we were able to greatly improve the workflow among the three agencies, eliminate processing backlogs, and provide new keys and systems to access land records for the public and for the title community.

In fact, the situs address from the GIS has become one of the most popular keys for accessing deed records and to begin title searches. Part of the process is that the proper UPI number is included with each recorded deed prior to indexing and recording. This means that the GIS maps are checked early, and a tie among the maps, addresses, parcel identification numbers (PINs), and deeds is ensured. A new $5 fee per UPI number was instituted to verify the proper UPI number prior to recording and indexing. This new fee has generated nearly $5,000 for the county. GIS can have significant revenue potential, but we just need to listen! The county received a URISA Exemplary Systems in Government Award for our land records modernization effort.

Our third example is listening to our Parks Department. A senior staffer responsible for infrastructure planning in the department asked if we could use GIS and GPS to do preliminary layouts showing dimensions and critical information for preparing bids, etc. Since we have implemented our own cooperative continuously operating reference system site with West Chester University, we have been very pleased with the results of GPS for primary data collection. We did indeed find that we could use GPS and GIS capabilities to save consultant costs to do prebid specifications and have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars for our Parks Department.

Other examples of listening by our GIS Consortium team are from our 22 partners—townships, boroughs, school districts, and utility authorities. One of our school districts asked, "How many students might we expect in area X during the next 20 years?" Staff were able to do a build-out analysis using environmental and zoning data from the GIS to calculate the number of expected housing units—and therefore school students by grade—to help with school site purchases.

Two other examples from my Florida days (Orlando/Orange County GIS manager) are also worth mentioning: geoauditing and storm water utilities. Because GIS should have the most accurate addresses and geography of the local community, we used GIS to help audit revenue files used to collect franchise fees. One audit returned many hundreds of thousands of dollars in cellular telephone franchise fees since the "postal city" (Orlando) was used incorrectly to report franchise geography for unincorporated Orange County. We were also able to use the GIS to initiate a storm water utility for the city of Orlando a year earlier than expected with a net revenue of an additional $10,000.

No question, the best uses of GIS will come from your most ardent supporters. Just listen to them!

About the Author

F. Peirce Eichelberger is a past URISA president and has served on the board of directors twice. He is the GIS manager for Chester County, Pennsylvania.

More Information

For more information, contact F. Peirce Eichelberger (e-mail: or visit URISA at

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