Saturday, July 29, 2000

Database links Cincinnati government


Computers save time, money

By Sarah Anne Wright
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In just seven years, the Cincinnati Area Geographical Information Systems has grown from 25 licensed work stations to 1,000.

        And now leaders at the high-tech information system predict there will be 4,000 work stations by 2004.

[photo] EUGENE LACKEY JR., A CINCINNATI BUILDING INSPECTOR, PUTS DATA INTO A PALM COMPUTER WHILE INSPECTING AN OFFICE BUILDING BEING RENOVATED IN DOWNTOWN CINCINNATI.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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        Leaders acknowledge it's an ambitious goal; but then again, the entire CAGIS project is bold in scope.

        The computerized system integrates 20 city and Hamilton County departments — from the Metropolitan Sewer District to building inspection units.

        A shared information system may not sound sexy, but consider what CAGIS does:

        • A building inspector can go to a site and, using a palm computer, issue or deny a permit on the spot by checking to see that other permits are in order. Generic comments are already listed in the system, saving the inspector typing time and paperwork.

        “It's what I wanted for the last 10 years,” said Ronald Thomas, supervisor of buildings and inspections for the city of Cincinnati. “I hated the drudgery of coming back in and doing paperwork.”

        • The Regional Planning Commission plots demographic data based on census data and builds profiles of various political jurisdictions. It can map dropout rates, expenditure per pupil and enrollment by neighborhood.

        • Utility companies, such as Cinergy and Cincinnati Bell, are able to file permits electronically for repair work.

        • A 911 operator can immediately pinpoint location, neighbors, property owners; and give directions to approaching ambulances.

        • Developers use the system to obtain background information about a parcel.

[photo] MR. LACKEY USES A CHECKLIST ON A PALM COMPUTER TO RECORD HIS INSPECTION.
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        “It's a good system to get preliminary information about a perspective site,” said Tom Stapleton, senior vice president with Eagle Realty Group.

        Kathy Lordo, director of Hamilton County Community Health information services, said the program has terrific implications that allow the department to target resources where they are most needed. It uses CAGIS to monitor streams, dog bites, communicable diseases and injuries.

        “We could plot out (adolescent car accidents) and say, "Oh, wow, there's a school in this neighborhood and let's see if we can't have an intervention education program there,'” said Ms. Lordo.

        CAGIS has attracted city planners from as far away as China, South Korea and the Ukraine. They have come to see not only how the technology works, but how it's implemented and how data fields are used. National Geographic has even called with an invitation to be a part of a computerized geography program.

        “It's an incredible success story,” said Stephen Kinzy, regional manager for Environmental Systems Research Institute Co., which manufactures one of six software platforms that make up the municipal system. “They're one of the premier (sites) in the whole U.S., and the whole world.”

        CAGIS programmers integrated six software platforms and customized each for different departments.

        The program has cost $20 million since 1994, not including hardware upgrades, which are paid for by each department.

        It's found savings that were lost in a paper mire, recovering millions in fees for the Metropolitan Sewer District when it discovered some properties weren't paying sewage fees.

        CAGIS administrator Barbara Quinn compares the cross-referencing to a “fraternity blackball system,” whereby someone can be denied a building permit because one thing was missing. Before CAGIS, the lack of a permit might go unnoticed.

        But time is the real savings.

        Obtaining names and addresses to send out notices used to take hours and a visit to the auditor's office with pen and paper. Now, planners spend minutes on CAGIS and walk away with mailing lists.

        “This stuff has so much intelligence in it,” said Dan Young, senior city planner in the historic conservation office of Cincinnati's planning department. Because of improved efficiencies, the unit has been winnowed from 40 employees in 1986 to 27.

Invasion of privacy?
        But some now wonder if CAGIS is too good. For instance, could a contractor be denied a permit because of unpaid parking tickets, library fines, or child support?

[photo]
        The technology is being built to make checks across various departments possible — if access is permitted.

        “Any information that has an address associated with it, you could "geocode' it in CAGIS,” said Tim Horsley, a project manager in the Regional Planning Commission. “But I haven't had anyone ask for a list of bad guys or anything.”

        Mr. Horsley's department plots demographic data against geographical data, building community profiles. It's in the process of putting much of the information online.

        The potentials are simply futuristic.

        “Let's say you had addresses of where senior citizens lived. In just a few minutes, we could map where they live. You could see where the bus lines and the hospitals are, in relation to their homes.”

        As the government computerizes records, privacy advocates warn that the aggregation of information — although all on the public record — could be potentially invasive.

        “Are they are informing the public that the information they submit is populating a central database and being shared across borders?” asks Brandon Lenoir, director of the National Electronic Commerce Coordinating Council, a lobbying firm advocating electronic government record-keeping. “Is this a tracking mechanism, or an efficiency mechanism?”

        Mr. Lenoir's group has reason for concern. In a look at the major metro areas in the United States, it found only two counties and one city, Seattle, had posted privacy policies.

        Neither CAGIS, Hamilton County nor the city of Cincinnati has a policy with respect to electronic records and privacy.

        “It's decided on a departmental basis,” said Ms. Quinn. “Each department decides what information it will put up to the enterprise. The system is designed to share the foundations, not the entire database.”

       



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