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A key element in this project was the development of a prototype system that would help the agency determine whether a technology solution could help solve their backlog problem, and to help them understand better the expected costs and benefits of developing a system. In this case, a prototype system combining Geographic Information System (GIS) features with document imaging capabilities was developed and evaluated at the agency. This prototype played a key role in helping the agency develop realistic expectations for the technology.

The Problem

In 1994, about 1,000 individuals and businesses asked the APA if it had jurisdiction over their property. When a landowner wants to make an improvement, or a business wants to expand, they need to first ask if the agency has a regulatory interest in their property or proposal before they can begin work.

What kinds of properties does the Agency have interest in? Those near wetlands or other sensitive environmental areas, for example. They are also interested in projects near ones where they have already made some formal determination.

To get a determination from the agency, an individual writes to ask if the agency has jurisdiction over the project (a "Jurisdictional Inquiry" or JIF). The request usually contains a description of the property and the proposed work. A member of the APA staff reviews the application and routes the request to an in-box. Another APA officer finds the tax map, locates the property, then searches for the correct dozen or so maps which relate various data about that area of the park. At a light table, ruler and pencil in hand, the officer does calculations and manipulations to review the characteristics of the parcel.

Once that's done, the officer attempts to locate any information on previous actions in the area of the parcel. This is a long process. Maps and files are all paper-based, and are stored in many places throughout the agency. Much of the data is in archives, which can take days to search. On average, it takes 30 days just to tell the landowner if the agency has jurisdiction. In 80% of the cases, the answer is that the agency has no jurisdiction. 95% of the time needed to make this determination is spent gathering the data.

If jurisdiction is found (as in about 10-20 %) of there cases, there is another, longer period to determine what restrictions may be placed on the project.

The Prototype

The agency sought to speed this process up through the use of an on-line system that provided access to geographic data, geographic analysis tools, paper documents such as deeds and project files, and a workflow system that would handle the JIFs. Given that no commercial off-the-shelf system offered this combination of functionality, it was necessary to build a custom integration of a Geographic Information System (GIS) together with a document management system. Because of the complexity of creating a prototype encompassing all these features, workflow was redesigned, but technical workflow capabilities were left out of the prototype.

The system was designed using Hewlett Packard HP-UX workstations, ESRI's Arc/Info and Arcview2 GIS software, and Excalibur EFS document management system, with links to the agency's existing project databases. The system was populated with a variety of data available to the agency in electronic form, as well as additional information scanned in for the project. This included existing JIF applications, project folders, and tax maps from selected areas in the park.

The prototype was developed by the project team including staff from Computer Sciences Corporation, Hewlett Packard, ESRI, and CTG. It was provided to the agency for evaluation for a period of several months in the project. A more detailed description of the prototype and its development process is contained in Using Technology to Change Work: Technical Results from the APA Prototype

How the Prototype Works

The prototype is no longer operational, but the following scenario captures the essence of how it functioned. The screen shots show what a user would see. Say Lakewood Properties owns a piece of land in North Elba (which is in mid-park, near Lake Placid). The owner, Mr. James McNamara wants to know if he can build a new structure on his land. The county planning office has reminded him that he needs to get an OK from the APA before a building permit is issued.

Using the workstation, the agency can quickly collect the data needed to make a formal determination. When Mr. McNamara comes to the APA, a desk officer asks him for information about the property.

Assume Mr. McNamara doesn't know his tax map information. The officer can search the existing database index of parcels for his name. Finding a record, he can ask, "is this the parcel just north of Rt. 86?" to confirm that they have the right location.

From the link to the GIS system, the officer can call up a map window that is focused on the parcel of land in question. The parcel is identified by a yellow dot indicating the parcel centroid which has the name "McNamara James" in its record.

Once the agency confirms that it's looking at the right parcel (possibly with Mr. McNamara still on the phone), it can start collecting data. First, the background color indicates that the parcel falls into a low intensity use area, which has some levels of restrictions. Next, the extent of the parcel's boundaries can be determined by looking at the current tax map.

The agency can add additional information it needs to conduct its review. It can, for example, review the ecological information around that parcel. It might see that there are wetlands, about 100 meters away from the edge of the parcel.

All this can be done in the initial contact with Mr. McNamara. If he'd like a copy, the agency can print our maps to show him what they have found.

All GIS functionality is present: zooming and panning, moving to other areas of the map, adding and removing different types of information ("layers") to the view. The agency's databases can be used to locate information about other parcels that may be pertinent.

So far, everything the agency has done is within the realm of the GIS. An important piece of information that is needed to make a determination of jurisdiction is the prior history of the parcel. Boundaries of previous permitted projects have been rasterized and stored in the database. If the agency turns on that coverage, they can see that the centroid (the geographic center of the property) falls within an earlier project. The agency can select that project and issue a request to see the project data. The request is passed to the document image software, which shows that the parcel was part of a subdivision.

In this case, the project document was the original subdivision. Often the terms of the subdivision may contain restrictions on the types of actions which may be taken on the property. Once the agency retrieves the document, it can be printed and attached to copies of the earlier findings.

After evaluating the prototype, the Adirondack Park Agency determined that the combination of on-line map data and file information would be sufficient to approve the great majority of requests without further action. Instead of passing paper and collecting data over weeks, it could accomplish the same work in minutes.