City GIS department is one-man operation
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As the city of Charleston's one-man GIS department, Adam Cottrell never knows who might call next, needing his expertise.
It could be the Planning Department, wanting to know the precise location of building and property lines for a zoning issue. It could be Traffic Engineering, seeking the locations of every traffic sign in the city for a federally mandated maintenance program. Or Kanawha County Metro 911, looking for an accurate list of every street address for its dispatch system.
"That's the great thing about the city," said Cottrell in his office, in a back corner on the fourth floor of City Hall. "There are so many departments that can use this information."
Since joining the city's Information Systems Department nearly two years ago, Cottrell has juggled a number of projects -- all under the GIS (geographical information systems) umbrella.
A fairly new specialty, GIS uses computer and mapping technology to analyze data in a graphical way.
"We're trying to look at data in different ways to make better decisions," he said. "Take criminal activities."
The Police Department has reports from each crime that show where and when the incidents took place, Cottrell said. By mapping the data, it's easy to spot patterns.
"It could be used to see if there's a shift over time," he said. "If we've got a hot spot here one month and it's shifting east or north, is it a trend?
"I graduated from Marshall University and straight out of there went to the Beckley Sanitary Board, set up their GIS system," said Cottrell, 34. "I came back to Charleston and worked in the private sector. I did sanitary work -- PSDs throughout the state -- but also worked on other projects. I worked for the Metro 911 center and then was hired by the city.
"My degree from Marshall was in environmental science. That's how I got introduced to GIS."
While working with Metro 911, Cottrell helped convert rural addresses across the county as part of the statewide readdressing project. But counties have no jurisdiction within municipalities, he said.
"So we're checking all the addresses in Charleston to help the emergency responders. We're doing a pilot area."
Cottrell sent a team of contractors -- field collectors -- to physically verify a list of addresses Metro 911 has been using to dispatch emergency responders with the city.
For the pilot area he chose the eastern part of the city -- from the densely packed East End to the hilltop farms east of Greenbrier Street. The area, covering about 10 percent of the 22,000 addresses in the county-supplied database, was chosen because it contains a cross-section of neighborhood types.
Charleston will avoid most of the growing pains suffered in unincorporated areas, where long stretches of rural routes had to be renumbered, Cottrell said.
"A lot of [the address data] is good. But we have a lot of residential houses that have been converted into apartments. We don't have the apartments listed. Sometimes you can't tell it's a multi-tenant structure; there's just a single address on the front of the house."
By cross-referencing the survey data with two other databases -- the county assessor's property tax records and the city's voluntary rental property registration system -- a more accurate picture of city real estate is emerging.
"This is one of the projects where the assessors have stepped up to the plate," Cottrell said. "They sent us the data they had."
He's quick to credit Assessor Sallie Robinson, whose election in November ushered in a new era of cooperation with the city. "Sallie's office has made a huge difference."
Block by block, lot by lot, using mapping software that has incredibly detailed aerial photos of the city taken in 2011, Cottrell is compiling data for each property that, until now, wasn't kept in one place -- owner, street address, tax status, rental status.
He can track vacant properties and demolished buildings, and may eventually be able pin down what people now only guess at -- the total number of rental properties in the city.
Two years ago, an engineering consultant drove what was called a mobile LiDAR (light detection and ranging) truck along city street to collect data for a three-dimensional map of the city. The data -- about 10 terrabytes in all -- are trickling into Cottrell's hands.
With the right software, you can ask for a list of locations of, say, every manhole cover in the city. Cottrell calls the process feature extraction.
"The initial features were stormwater and street signs, both federal mandates," he said.
Under one mandate, the city needs to map its stormwater sewer system. The LiDAR mapping data help by pinpointing all the surface features -- the manhole covers and sewer grates along the street, and the sewer outlets along the river.
"Something I got back today was fire hydrants," he said. "I want to make maps of locations we can send out to the fire department."
Firefighters want to make sure any hydrant they hook up to has enough pressure and volume, or is even working, he said.
Cottrell plans to compare a list from the water company with the database of 1,300 hydrants LiDAR detected.
"Is it the water company's? If it's private, the fire department doesn't like to use it. It might be out of service. But if the water company's hydrant is 1,000 feet away, the fire department may want to hook up to the private one."
Sometimes, though, Cottrell has to drop everything. In early April he got a call as city leaders were about to adopt Mayor Danny Jones' half-cent-per-dollar tax on retail sales.
"I had to get all the zip + 4 numbers for the entire city."
You've probably seen them: instead of the normal five-digit zip code, there's an extra four tacked on. That's zip + 4. For example, 25301-2816 will bring you to the front door of the Gazette.
"The dash four gets you closer to the actual delivery point," Cottrell said.
That seemingly simple task, needed to identify all possible taxable mail-order delivery points in the city, was not simple at all.
Each of the city's dozens of five-digit zips can have hundreds of four-digit extensions. And while some of the zip codes lie entirely within city limits, others straddle the border. So Cottrell had to sort through hundreds of zip + four descriptions to see whether they're in or out.
Cottrell spent the better part of six weeks crunching the zip codes, doing little else. But when the state Tax Department starts sending sales tax checks to city next year, to help improve the Civic Center, he can take satisfaction knowing he played a vital role behind the scenes.
Reach Jim Balow at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5102.