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Poole of information

Geographical information systems can allow local authorities to make full use of information about their area

Just a few weeks ago it would have taken days or weeks for a solicitor in Poole to get all the relevant land charges information needed for a potential property buyer. Now the information could be turned round in a day.

The Borough of Poole is rolling out a new geographical information system across seven of its departments. Data on the borough's own property is going live this week, adding to October's introduction of the land charges system and use by the planning department since January.

The system is attracting considerable interest from other authorities and a steady stream of visitors to see it in action.

Poole had originally taken on GIS in 1991, when it had a single workstation running McDonnell Douglas' GDS system. This was mainly used for producing maps, for drainage and so on. It then went out to tender in 1995 for a new Windows-based system, drawing 40 initial responses which were shortlisted down to five. The choice was only made after detailed presentations by all the shortlisted groups to about 100 potential users across the council. 'We felt it would only work if people wanted it and would use it,' recalls GIS manager Bob Coney.

The system adopted has been supplied and put together by Bristol-based software company MVM, using its 2020 Planner system and based on GIS software from Cadcorp. More than 75% rated the Cadcorp system as their first choice, Coney reports. In round figures, the system has cost 600,000; over half of that on data acquisition and capture.

One of the key uses was seen as being in land charges, answering the questions posed by solicitors acting for property buyers. This was an obvious target for streamlining, as the old method involved multiple pieces of paper, sent out to housing, planning, highways and transportation and so on. Comments were fed back and collated.

But the uses are going far beyond this, particularly as Poole became a a unitary authority in April 1997 and the GIS work is taking in other aspects such as schools-related information. Use is also being made or considered in areas as diverse as where to target mobile library provision, setting up emergency diversions and recording ancient monuments.

MVM had started looking at local authorities' use of planning data a few years ago, against a background of a move towards desktop computers. 'We went back to first principles, looking at what happens in a planning authority,' says managing director Richard Markham. The system is composed of a number of different software systems, such as Cadcorp's GIS system and Filenet's Watermark image management. Microsoft Office is also included, so that information can be put into a Word document or spreadsheet, for example.

However, all the data is kept in an Oracle database, rather than in the proprietory systems, Markham explains. 'The emphasis is on keeping the integrity of the data within the database.'

Equipment, map management and printing were up and running within a month, with the first groups of users trained. Data is obviously crucial to GIS, and in parallel the 14 month data capture programme was started, based around Ordnance Survey mapping.

The whole principle for the planning system is a series of overlays, explains Coney. There are three main ingredients;- planning constraints, planning histories and planning policies.

The fundamental building blocks on which these are based are basic land and property units. A polygon is drawn around each of the 62,000 addressable properties so that there is a consistent database. Terraquest carried out this work, which took about three months to complete.

The next major dataset was to add the planning constraints, such as tree preservation orders, listed and locally listed buildings, conservation areas and footpaths. The information is held on the database 'and so when we have a planning application, we know all the contraints affecting it,' Coney explains. So for example, all places above a certain height are subject to regulations concerning the airport .

Added to this were basic details of planning applications going back to 1948 - some 90,000 cases - with more information on those in the last 20 years.

One of the great benefits is in customer service, in that people can easily be given information about developments they are interested in. Consultations become more focused, so that, for example, if an application would have an effect on wildlife, the appropriate special interest groups can be notified. Tasks that took two weeks can be done in the same day, and information that might have been missed is picked up, says Coney.

The system allows many different layers and types of information to be cross related, from wildlife areas to bus shelters, crime statistics to new traffic schemes. A current example is the development of a play strategy for Poole. There are about 30 official play areas in the borough which have been mapped.

National criteria can be superimposed on this, showing the realistic catchment area of each, taking account of main roads. Children of different ages can be pinpointed to evaluate for example a request for a new play area or likely future demand. This involves linking the information on play areas to schools admission information and records of immunisation and vaccination.

'Once you start scratching the surface you very quickly find that people will use the system for all sorts of things,' says Coney.

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