Piecing together thousands of land records into a single standardized geospatial database enables the Department of Defense to more efficiently and effectively manage its real property inventory.

Pairing geospatial analysts with real property specialists helped ensure boundary accuracy.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) manages 30 million acres of land and 600,000 buildings and structures worldwide. Understanding and accurately tracking these assets is essential to the successful accomplishment of most defense missions. It’s a complex endeavor that requires a sophisticated GIS.

After conducting a comprehensive assessment in 2001, the DoD found that its real property inventory (RPI) contained inaccurate information and was supported by redundant technology systems and inefficient processes. Each branch of the military used disparate standards for tracking and maintaining real property records, and the information had been collected over decades with different technologies and techniques. Additionally, real property information was inaccessible to key users and incompatible across the different service branches. With each passing year, the need for the effective management of real property assets within DoD became more critical to address base closure requirements, multiple use requirements and limited budgets.

In 2003, the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, Installations and Environment (DUSD/I&E) launched the Real Property Inventory Requirements (RPIR) initiative to “improve real property’s technology infrastructure and processes.” As part of the initiative, the RPIR aims to achieve real property efficiencies by standardizing DoD’s data, systems and processes. During the next two years, the DUSD/I&E developed the Installations & Environment Business Transformation Directorate to establish a plan for this initiative.

All tract maps were georeferenced to aerial imagery to enable the geospatial placement of land parcels, disposals, outgrants and sites.

In 2007, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) contracted Photo Science, along with two other firms, to assist in the development of a program to standardize and update the department’s land records using GIS across each of the nation’s most significant installations. With more than 15,000 parcel land records across more than 100 installations, the project was essentially a giant puzzle that needed to be assembled into a single, standardized geodatabase--all within three years. According to the Geospatial Engineering Branch of USACE, the project was one of the most complex initiatives undertaken across the entire enterprise by DoD.

Working with one installation to recreate, georeference, and standardize property records can be challenging. Simultaneously working with 17 USACE districts and more than 100 individual Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps installations pushes the limits of possibility.

The military engineering community previously responsible for maintaining the land records had implemented a maintenance program that was local and non-standard, which created numerous ambiguities. Some land record documents encompassed more than 100 years of land ownership transactions; many of the source documents were out of date and lacked a trustworthy record or complete property listing. As a result, it was impossible to gauge the overall area that the final product would encompass. The puzzle had an indeterminable number of pieces.

Using deed research, coordinate geometry and georeferencing techniques, Photo Science embarked on the immense task of analyzing, discovering and realigning thousands of parcel land records with a very complex set of attributes. Numerous stakeholders were involved in the effort, including Office of the Secretary of Defense, each of the service branches (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps), various USACE districts, the USACE Army Geospatial Center (formerly known as TEC) and Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC). Representatives from each of the stakeholders met bimonthly over the course of the project to discuss, refine and implement the project goal. Stakeholders also helped coordinate local resources with the USACE districts and with each installation to address the hundreds of property boundary questions that needed to be resolved to keep the program on schedule. To avoid data boundary errors and ensure that the final product would be complete, Photo Science paired geospatial analysts with real property specialists, and these teams worked together throughout the project.

A real property inventory map developed through the project.

The project workflow involved many tasks that were dependent on the installation and branch of service. Once an installation was assigned, the teams obtained the source data, began research and scanning, and created an inventory document identifying ambiguities. The geodatabase was created to the Spatial Data Standards for Facilities, Infrastructure, and Environment (SDSFIE) standard in the correct Universal Transverse Mercator zone where the installation was located.

Using a combination of Esri software and internally developed tools, Photo Science georeferenced all audited real estate acquisition tract maps to aerial imagery provided by USACE to enable transparent visualization and the geospatial placement of land parcels, disposals, outgrants and sites. The geospatial delineation included the attribution of five separate feature classes. For each installation, the teams performed a thorough quality control assessment in which they checked each polygon against the source document, examined topology and ensured attribution completeness. The teams also created a metadata table that listed the property and contained additional information about the real estate interest as well as a site summary report to document any ambiguities, missing source documents, geospatial placement or attribution issues, or any other identified problems. They then created a final overview map of the installation for easy viewing of the data.

As the project progressed, the program standards had to be constantly updated and agreed upon by each of the services. The standards were revised almost monthly as each new installation identified new challenges. Photo Science facilitated these meetings and maintained a complex reporting system to manage every property-related discrepancy as each installation’s geospatial dataset and supplemental new property map was constructed.

The project workflow involved numerous tasks that were dependent on each installation.

Early on in the project, Photo Science realized that the tract maps, real estate summary maps, muniments and other source documents that were furnished by the government were dated and lacked information. Additional documents were held by each of the districts (Army and Air Force) and NAVFAC (Navy and Marine Corps) in data repositories. The Photo Science team needed to visit the installations or offices where the records were kept in order to obtain documents; however, the use of Photo Science staff to perform onsite source collection was not envisioned as part of the original scope of work. USACE adjusted the scope to account for missing documents through onsite reconnaissance, which allowed Photo Science to keep the project on schedule.

The project involved exhaustive research and the scanning of thousands of documents. Further complicating the endeavor was that each branch of service developed a preference for the level of accuracy necessary in the final product over the course of the program. While the Army maintains a larger real estate area compared to the other service branches, its preference was to focus fewer consultant resources on deed and records research and more on simple placement of boundary information. This decision acknowledged the fact that many installations were scheduled to have a boundary survey completed in the near future. For this reason, the Army opted to have its tract maps georeferenced to 1-meter resolution imagery and the individual parcels digitized.

The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, which had relatively fewer sites and less complete real estate data compared to the Army, decided they needed a more accurate product. Each real estate interest for these installations was placed based on the legal description using coordinate geometry (COGO) methods. Since some of the legal descriptions dated back to the 1940s, the teams encountered numerous gaps, overlaps and slivers where the properties did not perfectly coincide. These areas were spatially adjusted to piece together the puzzle.

The use of different mapping techniques allowed each branch of service to align individual real property programs with its inventory.

The use of different mapping techniques for each branch of service allowed all the branches to align their individual real property programs with their real property inventory in a flexible geodatabase.

The final deliverable was an Esri-based geodatabase for each installation, with metadata for each feature class compliant to Federal Geographic Data Committee standards. The comprehensive GIS database is reducing inventory management burdens and inefficiencies while integrating real property, financial and business management practices.

This geospatial inventory program has provided the military with a better understanding of the DoD’s real property interests and achieved the goals established by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense that are outlined in its Real Property Inventory Initiative report. Specifically, it provides the DoD warfighter and business enterprise with improved access to mission-critical real property information and enhances real property efficiencies by standardizing DoD’s data, systems and processes.

The completion of this program has allowed DoD to concentrate its time and resources on the enterprise’s most vital mission–equipping and supporting the warfighter–while working toward the enterprise goal of agile, flexible and horizontally integrated business operations. The real-time access to an accurate and comparable inventory of DoD worldwide assets will also be an invaluable tool for future administrations as they address the military’s budget and spending challenges.