GIS Mapping Could Aid District of Columbia

Three Netplex companies are working to develop a geographic information system for the nation's capital

Photo Science Inc., Gaithersburg, Md., has begun testing a geographic information system it is building for the District of Columbia under a contract worth $8.5 million.

The WGIS system, scheduled to be completed in five years, should help the district government improve its services and accelerate city planning functions. For instance, the system will enable city officials to maintain streets and water lines, perform visual analysis of proposed developments and even analyze crime patterns. The system will also be used to route vehicles such as ambulances and snow plows and support community policing efforts.

The National Capitol Planning Commission, the central planning agency for the federal government in the Washington metropolitan area, in cooperation with the district's Department of Public Works and administrative services, selected Photo Science one year ago in September to develop the system. Subcontractors on the project are Dewberry & Davis, Fairfax, Va., and Bryant & Bryant, Washington.

Photo Science, established in 1955, specializes in the development of spatial data technologies to support engineering, environmental and land management applications. In 1986, the company, under new management, moved toward geographic information systems and services.

The company's clients include government agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Defense and the states of Delaware, Florida, Maryland and Vermont.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which is taking part in the pilot project, plans to use the system to improve its tracking of criminal activity in the city. Since the district has no state prosecutor, all criminal activity is handled by the U.S. attorney. The test pilot of WGIS is scheduled to be completed in January 1997.

The next step in the project is not clearly defined. The district's budget is distributed one fiscal year at a time, and the NCPC is unable to commit money beyond one year.

The three companies plan to use results from the pilot program to implement the best methodology for the district's system.

David Seidman, program manager for the Department of Administrative Services, said that introduction of the GIS system represents a watershed for the city.

"The D.C. government has to evolve into a different organization," said Seidman. "This contract is a prerequisite for a lot of improvements."

One of the planning commission's biggest challenges has been collecting and organizing data, said Robert Marriott, assistant executive director for the NCPC.

He and other city officials expect the system to speed the services delivered by agencies in the district. For example, WGIS will aid in issuing building permits, helping city officials maintain water and sewer systems, tracking road signs, maintaining traffic signals, fire hydrants and trees, and improving snow and trash removal.

Since the 1950s, the NCPC has developed paper maps for these same applications. The agency produced a new set of maps of the city every five years. But in 1991, the agency decided the process was slow and inaccurate. It proposed to produce the maps digitally to the city administration. However, due to politics and lack of funding, the NCPC was unable to pursue implementation until four years later.

"Photo Science has hung on to this," said Barney Krucoff, community planner and the GIS manager for the NCPC. "The private sector has been very patient with us."

Chris Barnard, business development manager for Photo Science, said the value of the contract had not been determined when the company first bid on it in 1995. The company and 18 others from across the country sought the contract anyway.

Because of budget uncertainties in the district, the full $8.5 million may never be allocated, said Barnard. The company has currently received $1.1 million to take aerial shots of the city and develop the pilot program.

So Photo Science and the NCPC have set out on a crusade to attract more supporters by educating agencies and government officials about the potential applications of GIS. Barnard hopes the marketing campaign will attract more funding and support.

"Everyone is attempting to articulate what this can do," said Barnard. "When people finally realize the potential, they want to start it yesterday."

According to Barnard, the company's desire to work on such an undefined contract is driven by a desire to help streamline the nation's capital.

"With the challenges of D.C., the old ways [won't] work anymore," said Barnard. His company has recently started talking to government officials in New York City to devise a similar system.

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