Engineering firm designs application that maps Forest Lake’s geography, infrastructure
A technological upgrade is saving the city of Forest Lake time and money.
Staff from many departments are logging onto a geographical information system, or GIS, a web-based application that presents loads of property and infrastructure data through layered maps.
“It’s a pretty common way of distributing geographical data these days,” said John Shain, the GIS project manager for the engineering firm Bolton & Menk. “It is rather technical, though.”
Bolton & Menk last year included the creation and implementation of a GIS in its winning proposal to take over the city’s engineering duties.
The city had $13,000 in its 2013 budget to purchase software and training for such a system. Accepting Bolton & Menk’s proposal allowed the city to divert those funds to speed up another technology-based project: the electronic archival of paper documents.
“This is definitely an area where we’ve been wanting to have a more robust capability and they provided that for us,” City Administrator Aaron Parrish said of GIS technology.
GIS has gone mainstream during the past 15 years, Shain said, though not in many cities of Forest Lake’s size and smaller.
“Most communities would love to have it,” said Ryan Goodman, Forest Lake’s city engineer from Bolton & Menk.
Shain considers GIS technology the latest iteration in the evolution of maps. The first digital maps were improved by ones with object-specific information available at the click of a mouse. Now, such maps have leapt from specialized software to the web. Users can log on from anywhere with Internet access.
Forest Lake staff underwent a two-hour training session on the system. Regular GIS users include Parrish, members of the Public Works and Community Development departments, and Deputy Clerk Chantal Doriott.
The system’s application is far-reaching. Users can click on a specific sewer line and see its dimensions, date of installation and maintenance history. They can assist residents looking to determine lot lines. They can create presentation-quality maps for use in city board packets or in meetings with potential developers. In preparation for a recent meeting of which the city needed to notify affected property owners, Goodman set up a custom mailing list by simply highlighting the area on a map.
“Instead of spending days doing it by hand, this is generated in a few seconds,” he said.
The system could easily be expanded. Staff could use existing handheld GPS units to tag each fire hydrant in the city and input the data as a map layer. The same goes for light poles or sidewalks.
For Bolton & Menk, the development of the system also provided a way for its staff to quickly familiarize itself with Forest Lake’s geography and infrastructure.
“We felt it was going to be something that would help ease the transition for the engineering staff,” Shain said.
That same benefit will come into play as personnel turns over on the city’s end.
“We feel it helps cities transfer knowledge between groups of staff,” Shain said. “A lot have staff who have been around a long time and know everything – it’s all up top. But this gets that information down and makes it easier for others to consume.”