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Winter 2002/2003
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Internet Access to Spatial Data Provides an Array of Services to This Spread-Out Region

Santa Barbara County, California, Does It All With GIS

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An area of Santa Barbara County displaying parcels, mobile homes, and supervisorial district lines over an airphoto with street centerlines.

Sometimes taking the road less traveled is the best way to go. Take Santa Barbara County's GIS. In 1994, this California county's technical committee knew Santa Barbara County needed a GIS, and they agreed that the assessor's parcels should support the basemap. "Other than that there was no consensus about what should be done, which tools to use, or what kind of precision was needed," says Laurie Kurilla, Santa Barbara County GIS coordinator.

Located approximately 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles and 300 miles south of San Francisco, Santa Barbara County has more than 100 miles of coastline, and one-third of its land cover is national forest. While the county is famous for its mild climate, picturesque beaches, scenic mountains, and relaxed atmosphere, getting a GIS launched wasn't exactly a walk in the park for Kurilla, who works out of the county's Clerk-Recorder-Assessor Department. She says she became a professional at doing Introduction to GIS presentations for the board of supervisors and department heads. And when the board of supervisors appointed her department as lead agency for GIS development, management, and coordination, there was no funding to go with the appointment.

"The assessor saw the value of GIS for his department as well as the rest of the county, and so we decided to just go ahead and start building the basemap," she says. Kurilla and her small mapping staff managed to squeeze in the basemap development while they carried on with the rest of their workload. "We didn't take the traditional approach of a needs assessment and analysis. Ours was mainly to build that basemap. It was very clear because of the amount of data we're responsible for in our department that we could put that map to use in any number of applications right away." Kurilla says she was also looking to use GIS as a Web tool. "I felt it was very important to get GIS on the Web."

Esri Across the Board

The technical committee evaluated software from several GIS vendors and eventually recommended Esri's. "With regard to GIS, we are an Esri shop. It's the county standard," Kurilla says. The county started out with Microsoft Windows 3.1, then went to Windows NT, and is now migrating to Windows 2000. The GIS server, ArcSDE, is available on a wide area network for all departments. With a Federal Emergency Management Agency Project IMPACT grant, Kurilla acquired ArcInfo as well as ArcView.

"Once we had the basemap done, we contracted with an Esri consultant to develop three MapObjects templates, which we've put out on the Web," says Kurilla. "They've been wildly successful. For instance, the buffer notification is so important not only to the public but also to other departments in the county. Planning and Development uses it every day."

Kurilla was anxious to get GIS on the Web for several reasons. Santa Barbara County occupies 2,774 square miles, and its population is estimated at more than 400,000. It's spread out. Several departments have offices located throughout the county, and some of those employees don't have access to the county's wide area network. "Serving the data on the Internet was critical for our county Business, not only for serving our public but also for serving our own employees," says Kurilla. Another reason is that the Internet provides a level of redundancy and backup. If a department server goes down, users can still access the data via the Internet. In January, the recorder's firmware went down, which had an enormous impact on title companies, other public users, and county staff, but Kurilla says, "Having the Internet access was a lifesaver. They could at least do lookups on existing data.

"I see GIS as being the portal. It can be used as a query tool to get any land-based information to users, whether they're looking for property information or building sites or zoning or elections information. My vision is that GIS can be used to start the process by deciding which precincts, neighborhoods, or zones to look at and drilling down from there. I see GIS as the next logical direction for Web sites," Kurilla says.


Kurilla also has a different approach when it comes to sharing data. She refers to Santa Barbara County's GIS (ReGIS) as a decentralized GIS--not one single, large system built and maintained by one department but a network of data sets maintained by their respective authors (departments) or cooperative jurisdictions. While all of the GIS data is kept on a shareable drive that the assessor maintains, it is a decentralized modular system with various contributors who use compatible software, hardware, and data standards.

It is a participatory system that Kurilla developed based on her concept of author, owner, and contributor. "We're an enterprise system," she says. "It's just that we're not centrally controlled." An author is someone who creates a data set such as someone in the surveyor's office creating district boundaries or a planner generating zoning boundaries. Authors are responsible for maintaining the data sets and providing them to the shared device. Contributors to the GIS server contribute data but may not be the authors. For instance, the Planning and Development Department might acquire a geological layer from another agency or download it from the Internet.

Many Applications

In a word, according to Kurilla, Santa Barbara County uses ReGIS for everything. The core users and major data authors are the Assessor, Public Works, and Planning and Development Departments, but other agencies benefit as well. Initially, the assessor's office served as the technical arm for the county's emergency operations office, providing mapping and other data services during floods and other emergencies. Now Kurilla is working with emergency personnel to bring GIS software to that department.

Access to the shared data network and ArcView and the Fire Map extension is enabling the Fire Department to prepare fire map books, which are emergency response plans for residential developments within the county. These booklets contain important textual information plus maps of evacuation routes for residents.

GIS played an important role in redistricting and public participation. One of Kurilla's staff members took a laptop with the ArcView reapportionment extension to town hall meetings for interactive discussions. After the reapportionment, the county supervisors were able to see which new parcels were in their districts and do outreach to those residents. For more information, contact Laurie Jayne Kurilla, County of Santa Barbara (e-mail:, tel.: 805-568-3371).

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