© 2006 Virginia Review, LLC


Geographic Information Systems Forum Encourages Private/Public Coordination

By Larry Stipek

Fifty–two GIS professionals met last May in Loudoun County to share ideas and best practices. The nearly day long forum was remarkable because it was focused on just one county, and because it drew together professionals from both the private and public sectors.

The forum was organized by the Loudoun GIS Focus Group, professionals representing the towns of Leesburg and Herndon, the Loudoun County Sanitation Authority, the county, and the Loudoun County Public School System. The purpose of the focus group is to promote data sharing and efficient data distribution, to share experiences, to examine best practices, and to provide mutual aid and support for GIS practitioners in Loudoun County, Virginia.

Members of the focus group suspected that there was sufficient GIS activity in the county to warrant an event with such a narrow geographic extent. They approached the Engineers and Surveyors Institute (ESI), a nonprofit Virginia corporation headquartered in Chantilly, to help publicize the event to its members in Loudoun. The ESI was formed in 1987 to, among other things, “to promote a public/private partnership devoted to improving the quality of engineering plans and the process by which they are approved … and to improve communication throughout the land development industry.” The private sector surveying and engineering firms that belong to ESI prepare the plats and surveys that become the foundation of the government’s electronic maps. The firms also use the compiled government data to rapidly respond to their client’s needs. A typical question might be, “where are the parcels with the right conditions for the type of store I want to build.” Coordination between the firms and government agencies is vital to speed processes and to hold down costs.


Government presentations each addressed the same questions in order to help establish a baseline for understanding the status of GIS activity, and to help formulate an understanding of issues that could be addressed in future forums. Presenters for the town of Leesburg, the school system, and the county described how they use GIS, who their customers are, the data they maintain, how they distribute data, and their plans for the future. A major goal was to help both the private and public sectors learn about the data that is available and how to get it.

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A permitting manager for an engineering firm in the county provided the private sector perspective. He described how he had created shortcuts on his office’s web page that allows his engineers to go directly to the mapping, assessment and other government data they need. If they need mapping from Prince William County, for instance, they simply click on the link on the firm’s page.

He compared a number of local government web sites in the Washington metro area and commented on their quality from a business perspective. His message was that economic development drives private sector information needs. As an example, he cited two clients, each of which was planning to open two hundred stores in the next five years. His job is to find all the sites that meet the criteria and to evaluate five of them for suitability, but he has to do it very quickly. Concept plans are needed within 36 to 72 hours, and real estate decisions are based on those concepts. Concepts are based on regulations made by the governments, and the jurisdictions also provide the information he needs.

He said that the information required is 1:2400 scale topography; zoning and zoning overlay districts; aerial photography; water, sanitary sewer, and storm sewer plans; road plats and future plans; regulations governing parking, setbacks, buffers, etc.; and development conditions. Some government web sites provide all of this information and some don’t. Some are easier to use than others. Most governments had probably never considered the needs of business when they designed their sites.

He also made a plea for making the flow of information between the private and public sectors completely electronic. His biggest complaint is not the cost of the paper and mylar used to file a project submittal, but the time expended. Every trip to a local government to pick up data or a map means that he has to pay someone to sit in traffic. The same is true every time he files a plan revision. Nearly every plan prepared today by the private sector is prepared electronically. Each is then plotted for review by a government agency, and then ultimately converted back to a computer file and stored by the government.

There were two other thought provoking presentations. Dr. Ed Zolnik from George Mason University is studying the relationship between transportation and land use. Dr. Zolnik compared an 1853 map of Loudoun County with another from 1926, noting that the road networks on the two are nearly identical. A 1961 air photo of Dulles International Airport, taken about a year before the airport opened, shows farm fields surrounding the runways. In 1962, 52,846 passengers passed through Dulles. In 2005, there were 27 million passengers, five million of whom were international. Dr. Zolnik is interested in understanding not just how changes in the transportation system drive changes in land use, but also how land use causes transportation to evolve.

Ken Holbert, GIS Manager for the town of Herndon, led a discussion on the possibility of using INET to share government data. For those unfamiliar with it, INET is a secure network that connects several sites in Northern Virginia. It could be used to share data, particularly public safety GIS data without having to be overly concerned about unauthorized access.

Fifty–two GIS professionals met in May at the Loudoun County GIS Focus Group Forum. Networking and surveying of recent maps gave the participants plenty to discuss.


There was a large map gallery at the forum, and voting took place during lunch. The first place winner was a map titled, “Floodplain, Topography, and Surface Waters,” by Kristin Brown. Second place was won by “Adelphia Cable Access by Address Points,” a map prepared by Adam Diehl. Third place was taken by a poster entitled “Stormwater” by David Ward. Stormwater explained the collection, use, and integration of stormwater infrastructure information.


One of the more remarkable things about the Loudoun GIS Forum was its size. The Virginia GIS conference draws more that 400 people. One county alone produced 52 attendees at a local meeting suggesting that GIS has matured and has become so pervasive that forums in other counties could also be successful.

We knew before the forum that governments were not coordinating as well as they could. We learned about several GIS programs in the area, and gained some insight about how we could better communicate, probably through additional forums.

We thought about the information we could provide to the private sector, but not about the information they needed. Web based GIS has become a significant resource for the private sector. They rely on government to maintain and provide those services, but we on the government side had not stopped to ask what they need. It was also suggested that we seriously need to work on electronic plan submittal and review. It would save time and money and would definitely save storage costs.

We intend to continue the discussion to see if we can better work together.

As a follow up, several county agencies are surveying their private sector customers this fall to find out if the county’s web site is providing them with the information they need and the site’s ease of use. The information will be used to begin improving the government’s Web services and to improve public/private sector coordination.

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