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Harrow Council is in the process of rolling out online services based on map data to its employees so that staff can be more mobile.

Harrow Council is in the process of rolling out online services based on map data to its employees so that staff can be more mobile.

The online services include simple mapping data that could be used by people who work out on the street for example, or map data that allows the council’s emergency planners to work from a tablet or laptop at home.

Harrow uses a central database developed on Esri software to house its data, which, as a local authority, comprises a large spatial element. The council is looking to push more of this valuable data out to staff, and where viable, directly to the public.

“Harrow moved to a central database in 2004, in a project to bring together the different departments into a central database. Since then, they have refined the model and grown the services delivered back out to the department,” Matt Pennells, senior geographic information officer at Harrow Council, told Computerworld UK at GIS solutions provider Esri’s annual conference in London.

“The public always benefit in the sense of, where possible, we display the information online. This can reduce customer contact to the council. If we can bring people online, it’s cheaper,” Pennells added.

“For example, people used to come into the council to ask if they lived in a controlled parking zone. We put a tool online so you can enter your address and see this information. That cut enquiries down so we’ll soon turn off the telephone number for that service.”

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Pennells' GIS team is responsible for managing raw data and analytics of that data, using Esri software, in the central database.

In addition, Pennells' team helps council staff with data visualisation to websites or to the public, for example, using business intelligence (BI) to decide where to base schools based on the location of children. The team also provides internal consultancy to projects “because spatial is so relevant to local council work”, he said.

Moving from paper to online

While making map data mobile for staff is the biggest GIS project the council is working on at the moment, a major project it completed at the end of 2012 was to use Esri software to digitise a paper-based system involving Land Registry data, to allow its legal team to check land ownership and deed documents.

“We took a paper-based system and turned it into an interactive web tool where you can search by address, look at the scan document, including the use of maps,” Pennells said.

Previously, the lawyers would have to search these paper documents in libraries.

“There were about 1,500 records of pieces of land the London Borough of Harrow owns within Harrow. They scanned in thousands of documents, nearly 10,000 pages. Now it’s all in one place,” Pennells added.

He said that it was “actually very easy” to do this project, taking just two weeks to turn around.

“We built a system so easy that lawyers [who may not be very technical] can use. They could pick it up in an hour. It was web-based, very simple.”

Social benefits

Meanwhile, Pennells revealed that Harrow Council understands the social benefits of GIS skills. The council gives Pennells and his GIS colleagues leave each year to volunteer for a charity called MapAction, which deploys GIS experts to areas of the world hit by disasters or in crisis. This has seen Pennells volunteer in countries like Burma, which was been devastated by cyclones.