Los Angeles Engineers Do More with Less, Using GIS

By Dan Ahern

The city of Los Angeles has an infrastructure system that rivals that of some small European countries.With 6,500 miles of sewer lines, spread over the city's 750 square miles, it comes as no surprise that the management of L.A.construction projects can create a logistics nightmare.

The Los Angeles skyline

The city's Bureau of Engineering (BOE) recognized that the painfully slow permit application process - not to mention the process of sifting through thousands of paper maps to determine locations of public facilities - was bogging down both public and private development projects.Enter the city's GIS system, which has brought the reams of paper data to the Web, dramatically streamlining the city's construction permit process.

A sea of paper

In a city as big as Los Angeles, developers live or die by the efficiency (or lack thereof) of the permit application system.Before beginning a construction project, they must submit detailed plans that address the infrastructure demands of their projects - everything from widening streets, adding traffic signals and streetlights, to planting new trees and installing storm drains.Only after submitting these detailed plans can permits be issued.

The city issues about 20,000 permits per year, explains BOE deputy city engineer Clark Robins.Robins is in charge of the Land Development Group, which oversees new subdivisions and parcel maps, the GIS Mapping Group, and Constituent Services, which helps coordinate construction activities.

In the days before GIS, developers had to go through the painstaking process of sifting through the city's 5,500 paper maps, determining where existing sewer lines lay, where streets would need to be widened, and how construction might impact power lines and streetlights.Developers and contractors spent hours waiting in line at the City Hall map counter to get their hands on the paper documents.

"As the city grew, it became more and more labor intensive to maintain these maps and bring them up to date all the time, and publish them every year or two," says Robins. "We needed to automate that record keeping to give us better control over our sewer area."

Once developers had gathered the information needed to create their plans, they were only halfway home; they still needed to wind their way through the permit application system, bringing documents back and forth to City Hall and waiting in yet more lines.

Bringing maps and manuals to the Web

The BOE took the first stab at improving access to its infrastructure maps by having them digitized and entered into the city's GIS database.While this process was going on, the city was dealing with a budget crunch and shrinking staff numbers, leaving Robins in charge of updating design manuals used by engineers to maintain Los Angeles's infrastructure.

"Most of the manuals had been written 10 years prior to that, in a word processor called Lexitron," Robins explains."I wanted to convert these manuals into a format that could be edited on the PC - and nobody had a Lexitron left."

The in-house manager of the BOE Web site suggested scanning the manuals and placing them on the Internet, where people could access them more easily. "That lit a light in my head that has never gone out," Robins explains."The City's direction ever since that time is to provide all our services and all our public information on the Internet."

The next step was to figure out how to use the Web to improve the permit process.Essam Amarragy, a structural engineering associate for the BOE, decided to automate permit applications via the Web, and did a test run for a small group of developers and contractors applying for utilities excavation permits."It was a smashing success and saved us tons of money," Robins explains."They loved it." By the end of the first year, he says, nearly all of the bureau's utilities excavations permits were issued over the Web.

Next step: interactive maps

In spite of these advances, there was a missing link in the grand plan to shift BOE information from paper to the Web: a true online GIS that included interactive maps."We wanted a system that links every single feature of the map to information in our database," says BOE engineer Amarragy.The BOE's existing GIS system allowed static maps to be displayed, "but if you wanted any real information, like the date the pipe was built or the material it was made of, you had to go to a relational database."

The BOE decided to use Autodesk MapGuide to create the features it needed in its infrastructure maps, such as annotation, displaying maps in vector format, and adding layers when needed.With a robust mapping solution in place, the bureau soon launched the NavigateLA Web site to provide a wealth of information about L.A.infrastructure for developers and contractors.

Visitors to the NavigateLA Web site can view maps showing everything from sewer pipe depth, installation dates, construction materials and the location of storm drains via the 400 map layers available.The ability of staff to make instant updates, and get them online right away, has brought about the implementation of other useful tools, such as redlining.

For instance, developers can redline their own unique versions of construction maps, and since NavigateLA is updated in real time, they can view these updated maps immediately. The redlining feature isn't just for developers.Staff at the city's emergency operations center use it to mark the locations of sewer breaks, keeping everyone involved with city infrastructure updated minute by minute on urgent projects.

NavigateLA data retrieval screen.

With NavigateLA, BOE staff can also coordinate public and private projects more effectively, ensuring that costly mistakes aren't made.For example, in the past it was all too easy to pave a street without realizing that the neighborhood still needed underground cable lines.Since NavigateLA can display current and upcoming projects, such costly mistakes can be avoided (along with unnecessary street digs).Developers applying for permits will see a polygon on maps that indicate a permit has been issued at that location; by clicking on the polygon, they can obtain the contact information for that permit holder

The shifting of GIS information to the Web makes to much easier for in-house staff to provide timely updates - something that wasn't possible in a paper-based mapping world."We now make programming changes almost on a daily basis, and regularly add new functionality and layers to NavigateLA with our own staff, instead of going through the long process of contracting for our services," says Susan Shu, GIS mapping group manager for the BOE."It makes us far more responsive to customers and other users' needs."

The power of the BOE's Web site and attendant GIS system has made it possible to create efficiencies in other ways.Last year, the bureau's GIS staff moved to new offices, requiring a two week shutdown of the department's public counter.Susan Shu decided to upload PDF and TIFF versions of some 24,000 maps (residing in the BOE's GIS system) the NavigateLA site.The public was so enthusiastic about the easy availability of the maps - eliminating the need to make the harried drive downtown - that the GIS department is considering shutting down the public counter altogether.

"We've developed our Internet services to the point where we don't even need the public interface," says Robins.

The hard work by the BOE to implement a Web based GIS solution has paid off: Amarragy says the NavigateLA Web site receives 7,000 hits per month from unique users."You can measure the success of an application by the number of hits, and all these people are using it for really crucial activities," Amarragy says."That proves it is easy for them to work with."

The easy access to infrastructure information has also spurred on developers to make use of the BOE's online permitting process - also a terrific boon for the bureau.At a time when the BOE's staff has been cut by 20 percent, permit issuance increased 40 percent between 2002 and 2003."We couldn't have done that without the Internet," Robins says.

Published Wednesday, June 16th, 2004

Written by Dan Ahern

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