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An Interview with a GIS Specialist

Dateline: 12/01/97

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have transformed the way many city governments operate. A GIS is an excellent tool for the computerized storage and analysis of spatial data so public agencies are finding them invaluable for day-to-day work. I interviewed Steve Maskol, who operates the GIS for the City of Santa Clarita about his city's system and their plans for the future.

Santa Clarita is located just north of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, California. The city has a population of approximately 131,000 and is composed of several distinct communities which merged in 1987 to form one incorporated city occupying much of the Santa Clarita Valley.

In the early years of its existence, the city saw the need for a GIS to locate and analyze the storm drain system inherited from the county. Initially, the city began by having a set of aerial photographs taken for the entire city. The city contracted the GIS work to an outside consulting firm who then digitized the photographs along with data about the storm drains. The aerial photographs provided a plethora of valuable information for the GIS, including the location of roads, contours, and building footprints.

With the data about the storm drains in the GIS, the city was able to analyze the capacity and age of pipes in order to keep the system at full effectiveness. The storm drain system is a very important part of the infrastructure in Santa Clarita due to its location amid the deserts and mountains of Southern California; it is vital to get water off of the streets and into channels and rivers. In 1996, the city decided to implement its own GIS.

Steve Maskol majored in geography and was hired by the city's engineering department in June, 1996. He is the only GIS staff member working for the city. Steve's first six months on the job were a transition from the consultant's system to the city's own. ESRI's ArcInfo and ArcView were installed on Steve's UNIX workstation early this year. Since that time, Steve has been busy correcting the work of the consulting firm because their quality control and assurance was not as effective as the city desired.

He has also updated coverages by adding property boundary and zoning data from the County Assessor's office. This data had to be manipulated to match the coordinates of the city's GIS.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently provided the city with CD-ROMs containing data indicating the boundaries of flood zones from the Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM) system. This information led to a project which utilized the GIS to determine which properties were located in the greatest flood hazard zone for a portion of the city. By matching the property location with information about the property, the city was able to mail letters to the owners of the properties, informing them of the fact that they live in a flood plain and what to do about it. The importance of this project was heightened by possible flooding due to El Niño this winter.

Steve also regularly produces maps for various city departments which request them, such as engineering and planning.

In the near future, the city would like to expand the use of the GIS to networked computers throughout city offices which would allow other departments to access the valuable data. For instance, if a resident called with questions about zoning on their property, the GIS could be utilized to access this information immediately instead of researching the answer through files or hard copy (paper) maps.

Another future goal is to include data from other city departments or related information in the system. Possibilities include utilities, crime data, or even fire hydrants. This would make the GIS even more valuable than it already is.

While the city and its GIS are quite young, it seems that their increasing use of GIS technology will lead to quite a future.

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