A plan that officials say could save lives and improve economic development, disaster response, transportation, water quality and natural resources is receiving near statewide support – but not from Allen County.
Despite an appeal by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security and other state agencies for counties to help address what one official calls "our most pressing needs," Allen County has declined.
All of this over some maps.
More than 80 percent of the state’s counties have contributed computerized maps to the IndianaMap initiative. The statewide map is free to anyone, accessible on any office, home or field computer and has unlimited uses.
A study last year showed that the freely available electronic maps pay for their expense many times over in statewide economic development.
But for the kinds of maps the state wants – land parcels, addresses, roads and jurisdiction boundaries – Allen County charges $15,000.
"That’s their decision" to charge a fee, said Jim Sparks, who as the state’s geographic information officer is compiling the county maps. "I think there are good business reasons not to support that."
It’s not that Allen County does not share maps with the state, especially when security or safety is concerned, said Dave Estes, who manages the county’s GIS office. But the issue of offering maps up for anyone to use, he said, boils down to politics and a philosophy that is slowly changing.
Although the average Hoosier might never use them, computerized maps touch nearly all facets of their lives and have become essential for many government agencies.
In its simplest form, mapping software can take a list of addresses – or longitude and latitude points – and show them as dots on a map. On top of that, other map layers, such as those showing floodplains, leaf collection routes or the distances tornado sirens are audible, can be added. Think of TV weather maps that overlay storm fronts on a county road map.
The uses are endless, and there are no better maps than those created by local governments, Sparks said.
Computerized mapping, known as a geographical information system, or GIS, links any information tied to land – addresses, property boundaries, crime statistics, utility lines – to a map. Users can analyze data from various agencies at once and see the results in map form. Trends in traffic or crime patterns, for example, can be determined.
For multiple agencies responding to a disaster, the use of a common, updated map is vital.
Indiana’s 2008 flooding, for example, took a coordinated response from local officials, volunteers, Indiana National Guard, local and State Police, federal agencies, the Red Cross and animal rescue, according to the non-profit Indiana Geographic Information Council, the statewide coordinator for Indiana geographic information.
The IndianaMap helped coordinate information.
It also is credited with Honda selecting its plant site in Greensburg. The map’s aerial photography – taken in 2005 using state and federal money and available for all counties – allowed Fort Wayne to measure impervious surfaces for accurate stormwater bills, resulting in $88,000 in increased annual revenue. Both examples and many others are from a fall 2008 Indiana Geographic Information Council newsletter.
A study outlined in that newsletter, conducted by the council and a company owned by a former executive director of the group, found that the initial $8.5 million investment in the IndianaMap has yielded $1.7 billion in Indiana projects. Of the 314 users surveyed, 90 percent said they could not do their projects without the state map.
Interestingly, Allen County is a paying member of the Indiana Geographic Information Council, the guiding force behind the IndianaMap.
Allen County brought in nearly $18,000 selling electronic maps last year and an additional $27,000 in subscriptions for online access to map data, not enough to cover office expenses, according to county officials.
National studies show that income has never been enough to make GIS departments self-supporting. Of Indiana’s 92 counties, only three or four still sell maps to support their GIS efforts, the state’s Sparks said.
Selling electronic maps "simply didn’t work," said Bernie Beier, director of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Office of Homeland Security, who calls GIS critical to agency decision-making.
"I think that whole model is on its last days," he said.
And there are signs Allen County is coming to that conclusion.
IMap, the county’s GIS program and a division of the Department of Planning Services, recently installed an online county map that allows users to obtain property tax information through the county treasurer’s Web site. The service is free and replaces an online subscription service.
Also this year, Fort Wayne joined the county board that monitors the iMap office in a joint data-sharing agreement.
The issue of providing free maps is likely to receive a future iMap board vote, said Kevin Holle, geographic information systems manager for the city and a new iMap board member. Holle has an advisory role on the Indiana Geographic Information Council’s data sharing committee.
The free online service and expanded iMap board are significant changes in moving toward more open data, said Kim Bowman, director of the joint city-county planning department.
As for the IndianaMap, "Allen County would like very much to participate in it," said Estes, the county’s GIS manager.
A county ordinance that sets map fees would have to be voted down by the iMap board. Noting that taxes already largely pay for the GIS office, Estes said whether the county charges for maps or gives them away depends on the political climate.
Asked which he preferred, Estes replied, "Folks pay for it anyway, don’t they? ... I don’t make the rules."
Allen County Commissioner Linda Bloom acknowledged the income from maps is small and that the newly formed city-county iMap board, which she is on, might eventually take up the issue of contributing to the IndianaMap.
But, she added, it’s not a priority to her.
"At this point, no." she said. "We have spent millions on this project over the years."
The state’s Sparks believes that all counties will eventually participate in the IndianaMap. Money, he said, is the sticky issue.
"If we were able to get funding to the GIS community," he said, "then I think those kinds of issues would go away."