A Powerful Package

December 1, 2010
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A number of misconceptions about GIS exist among surveyors. Many believe that GIS is only for large companies that have many employees. Some think the implementation cost is much too high to easily recoup the initial expenditure. Others believe that they don’t have the capability to pay someone to maintain a GIS, that it won’t help with the firm’s day-to-day operations, or that it won’t help them generate greater profits. 



A number of misconceptions about GIS exist among surveyors. Many believe that GIS is only for large companies that have many employees. Some think the implementation cost is much too high to easily recoup the initial expenditure. Others believe that they don’t have the capability to pay someone to maintain a GIS, that it won’t help with the firm’s day-to-day operations, or that it won’t help them generate greater profits. Coastal Surveying of Texas Inc. (CST) has proven all of these ideas false.

Coastal Surveying of Texas Inc. is a small firm that employs two registered surveyors and 13 support personnel. The company operates two offices--one in Galveston, Texas, and the other on the Bolivar Peninsula in Crystal Beach, Texas--and serves a limited geographic area in a small corner of Galveston County. CST provides an array of services, including coastal boundary surveys, topographic surveys, boundary surveys, subdivision platting and engineering support, with the bulk of our operation consisting of mortgage surveys and elevation certificates.

Our adventure into GIS actually began in a very simple manner. We needed a method for tracking jobs when they came in the door, as the field work and drafting were completed, and finally as the jobs reached billing and payment. While job tracking is a relatively simple task, especially for a firm the size of CST, it opened our eyes to the power that a database can wield. 

Streamlined Capabilities

We built our first job tracking database in 2006 on a Microsoft Access platform. This small transformation in our office procedures paid huge dividends. Before this transition, we were hand typing each invoice; with Access, invoices were automatically generated by the database. The reporting functions were also a powerful tool in the management of our business. For example, if we wanted to know the status of an invoice prior to the database implementation, we would have to look through a file drawer until we found it. Now the information was available at the click of a mouse.

The ability to create reports also helped in planning where to send field crews. Before the database capabilities, we had to piece a plan together from an array of hand-written job orders. Now, using a simple query in the database, we could easily obtain a list of jobs that needed field work. The people of CST quickly embraced this beneficial technology, and we began asking ourselves what we could do to make things even easier.

Linking the information in our job tracking database to a map was the next step we decided to tackle. It was here that we encountered our first major obstacle: What do we use as the common piece of information between our job tracking database and a map? Using GPS coordinates collected for a certain job would only help us get the information on a map after we had already done the job, so this was not an option. Using the GPS information we had already collected to create a base map was considered too expensive. Another problem was that all of our GPS data at that time resided in separate project files and were not tied to the same control point.

The answer was as elegant as it was simple: Use existing data from other sources. We were able to obtain a parcel shapefile of Galveston County from the Appraisal District. We knew that this data in no way represented a completely accurate map of the county, but it was close enough to get the picture we wanted to create. By adding a field to our existing job tracking database for the Galveston County Appraisal District Account Number, we had the link we were looking for and again completely revolutionized the way we did work. Now we had a picture with data built into it--not only the data from our job tracking database, but also all of the information included in the Appraisal District shapefile (owner information of adjoining parcels, legal descriptions, deed recording information, etc.). This leap in our capabilities left us hungry for more.

The next task we decided to undertake was how to deal with more than 60 years of historic surveys, elevation certificates and field notes. We certainly did not wish to resurvey all of the lots in those old survey documents. Yet again, the Galveston County Appraisal District Account Number was the answer. By scanning each document and saving it as a PDF with the account number as the file name, we now had a way to attach all of those historic documents to the mapping system. Scanning all of those documents sounded like a large and time-consuming task, but in practice only took about 18 months by utilizing people looking for part-time work and high school students on summer vacation. With this new information readily available to everyone at CST, we now had the ability to see where our current jobs were, if we had been there or near there before, and what we had done the last time we were in the area, all with a couple of mouse clicks. We were getting more jobs done without adding more people.

In fact, it was working so well that we were able to streamline the opening of our second office on the Bolivar Peninsula. We simply made a copy of the job tracking database and mapping system for the second office and got to work surveying.

In the screen shots above, the red thumbtack represents the location of a pending job. The symbols at the centroid of each lot represent hyperlinks to parcel information (County Appraisal District shapefile attributes, CST information and scanned documents) and also provide valuable in-house information, such as whether CST has performed a survey and an elevation certificate (indicated by green symbols), an elevation certificate only (blue), a survey only (yellow), or neither a survey nor an elevation certificate (white). 

Unexpected Benefits

Everything worked well right up to Sept. 13, 2008. That day, Hurricane Ike made landfall in the town of Gilchrist, Texas, which is about 20 miles from our Crystal Beach office. Devastation was widespread in the area, and both of our offices suffered damages.

It was then that our GIS started to show some of its unforeseen benefits. A mere three weeks after Ike’s landfall, CST was back up and surveying. We set up computers in a temporary location, fired up the GIS, and had instant access to all of our records. We lost many of our paper records to Ike, including 60 years of elevation data, but we had unknowingly prepared for this moment by creating a digital copy of everything. Without this data, we certainly would not have recovered as quickly, and we might not have been able to stay in business.

Hurricane Ike also illuminated another benefit of our GIS. Ike destroyed thousands of homes in Galveston and on the Bolivar Peninsula. Many of these homeowners filed insurance claims that required elevation information before they could be settled. But how do you measure the elevation of a structure that no longer exists? Our GIS, which contained elevation certificates for thousands of homes, held the answer for many homeowners. In this role, the GIS was invaluable.

Blaskey uses RTK-GPS to measure the coordinates of a control point that will be inserted into the firm's GIS.

Working in "˜the Cloud'

As life in Texas started approaching normal, we reopened both of our offices and came up with the next task to tackle with our GIS. Up to that point, we had been operating two stand-alone systems. This meant we had two systems to maintain, update and store. We knew that if we could cut this down to one system, we could see a dramatic drop in the time we spent working on the GIS.

Our solution was the Internet. With a minimal investment, we hired Jim Bouse from MapAndManage.com to develop and implement our GIS and database system into an online system that we access through a browser-based interface. Now, each office can assist with receiving orders, which allows us to better manage our assets and collaborate to get the work done faster. Additionally, the job tracking database’s new access to the Internet allows the system to automatically send e-mails to our clients, which lets them know the progress of their project at each step of the project’s completion. This feature has reduced the amount of time we spend on the phone answering those types of questions and gives us more time to survey.

Another added benefit with the connection to the Internet is the ability to access the system from remote locations. With any Internet connection from a laptop or a smartphone, the people of CST have access to all of our job tracking database information, including all of our historic records. If we leave the office without a client’s phone number or a copy of a previous survey, the data can be retrieved easily without a wasted trip back to the office. In fact, we can even take orders and generate invoices from a smartphone while on the job.

We are now working on giving our customers the ability to pay for our services online by adding another subroutine to the job tracking database. We continue to brainstorm new and better ways to put our GIS to even greater uses.

Sometimes I think back to the days before our GIS was in place, and I wonder how we ever got anything done. 

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