GIS integration puts Nanaimo on the Google map

How did a little city of 78,000 souls in British Columbia earn the big title of “Capital of Google Earth”?

The city of Nanaimo achieved the title inadvertently, says Per Kristensen, director of IT. “We didn’t come up with it – it was coined by Time magazine last year,” he says. “They picked up on a comment made by Michael Jones, the CTO of Google, at a conference, when he said ‘Nobody gets Google Earth like the city of Nanaimo.'”

Although Nanaimo didn’t seek the title, it was a welcome reward for years of hard work and collaboration at both the municipal and provincial level to build up and integrate data from various geographic information systems (GIS).

Nanaimo has been building up its GIS database for over 20 years by painstakingly geo-coding (assigning geographic designations to locations) and entering associated spatial and visual data for all its paper land records, says Kristensen. “It’s been a slow process with minimal investment, but we now have over 200 layers of data.”

With its extensive GIS database, Nanaimo can more efficiently manage many municipal services. One example is mapping the graves in its cemeteries – a common problem in many cities. Many cemeteries have grown organically over time without a grid system. “People buried over the last 150 years were just dropped in,” says Kristensen. “Finding a grave could only be done via placemarks in the scenery.”

Tackling this problem is surprisingly important to citizens. “This is one of the most requested services we get from the public,” he says. “Questions like, ‘Where’s my family from? When did they come here?’ come up in genealogy work. And there are many people in Vancouver doing historical work that come here looking for particular families.”

The project was spurred by the looming retirement of the caretaker who’d looked after Nanaimo’s cemetery for 30 years. “So we did a transfer of all her knowledge by creating a spatial map and plotting the graves. It’s been available internally for a year, and we’re about to open it up to the public.”

On the economic front, Nanaimo’s advanced GIS system allows it to respond instantly to developers looking for sites for shopping malls and other commercial buildings. In one instance, visual maps with several potential sites were prepared the day after a developer made an inquiry.

“He said the preparedness on our part encouraged him to move forward,” says Kristensen. “Without GIS, it probably would have taken weeks to respond, and it would all have been reactive. We would have had to get aerial photography, and have our engineers survey water and other infrastructure services.”

Nanaimo has also benefitted from larger provincial efforts to integrate GIS systems across the region, he says. “If a developer is looking for a site for a deep sea port that’s close to transportation, for example, you can’t just look in Nanaimo, you have to look across the coast.”

The Victoria-based Integrated Cadastral Information Society (ICIS) was started up in 2003 to integrate GIS information about the 2 million land parcels in B.C. by merging municipal, provincial and infrastructure data obtained from utilities, carriers and cable companies.

“We’re taking all that information and stitching it all together into a common base, so when things are mapped to property lines, it’ll all lined up accurately,” says Steven Garner, civic spatial program manager at ICIS.

While this issue may not be obvious to citizens, the ultimate goal is to use their tax dollars more efficiently, says Garner. An enormous amount of duplication happens at the back-end by public and private sector entities that need the same geographic information.

“If there’s no common base, everyone makes their own,” he says. “For example, if a municipality sent underground infrastructure information to BC Hydro, the pipes wouldn’t line up, and the same would happen with other utilities – so they would all get their own data.”

Municipalities everywhere are under pressure to improve the accuracy of their geographic information as demand increases from business and other levels of government, he says. “Many are playing catch-up, so we run a grant program in B.C. to provide funding for improvement projects.”

With its approach, ICIS has achieved a unique level of collaboration on this initiative not seen in Canada or the U.S., he says. Kristensen points out Alberta has a similar spatial data warehouse project underway, but Calgary and Edmonton are not full participants.

Although the benefits of integration are legion, many GIS integration initiatives in other jurisdictions are plagued by political turf wars, says Garner.

“When our director speaks in the U.S., Americans are astounded we’ve been able to get so many different entities onside talking to each other. We had a lot of politics too in the early days, but the secret is to keep people talking and plugging at the message, because it just makes sense to integrate this.”

ICIS expects to have a completely integrated GIS system in place within five years, he says. And some of this information will be made available to Google so that boundary lines across B.C.’s municipalities will be visible in maps.

This subtle form of broadcasting B.C.’s high-tech capabilities via Google can bring unexpected rewards. “The exposure we got from being named the capital of Google Earth has been fantastic,” says Kristensen. “From an economic perspective, the attention we got from the media was worth millions. We couldn’t buy that kind of marketing.”

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