Local government web sites providing access to imagery, maps, and related information have been popping up across the state for a while now. Each is unique, but one common approach starts off with a map view, then the user can make some basic queries of the mapped objects (e.g., land parcels).
At the same time, local governments have been maintaining databases (independent of maps) of land information such as land parcels, owner information, tax payment history, etc. In some cases this public information has been searchable over the internet.
Putting the two together
Recently Dane County merged the two methods into a single web approach with their DCiMap (short for “Dane County Interactive Map”). It brings together customized web mapping with their existing AccessDane application. For instance, you can run a database search for land parcels by owner name, review the results, then choose to see mapped features in the vicinity of one of the parcels. Or, you can explore maps first, then query to gather information about a map feature. Regardless of the entry point, the same set of tools is available.
The staff here at the SCO explored this web application and, with some caveats, we believe that it represents an effective approach that others will mimic. What may be most important is that the integration draws on a variety of existing and diverse databases and applications. To accomplish this level of integration is a feat. At the same time, the very fact that a wide variety of information is accessible raises its own set of challenges.
Two notes before we proceed. First, there are several levels of web access to land information from Dane County. The base level is free and unrestricted. Another level (also free) is designed for government agencies that work closely with the county; this service includes access to survey control and PLSS corner information. And a third level requires a paid subscription. For our tour through DCiMap we used the free public access route.
Second, DCiMap works with the MS Internet Explorer browser software, but appears to be incompatible with Netscape Navigator. An up-front notice to this effect would help avoid confusion.
Two doors better than one?
Some of us are especially comfortable with a map view as our entry point, while other people probably find that approach confining or difficult. So, by simply offering a choice, DCiMap likely serves the range of users more effectively.
Some people coming to a local government land information site are seeking very specific information and may not need a map interface to aid in the process. However, once those people find the information they are seeking, they may then want to see the geographic context. By not having to work with a completely separate web site, but instead being offered a simple avenue to the map view, they get the best of both worlds.
More is better….sometimes
The DCiMap site offers more map layers than any other Wisconsin site we have seen to date: 60 layers in all, grouped into ten categories . Some of the layers carry names that aren’t as clear as they might be, especially to novices in the land information realm. A number of layers are not documented with linked metadata, so a user has no way to ascertain vintage, lineage, or other characteristics.
People who work in the mapping arena are aware that individual map layers may not register with one another for a variety of legitimate reasons. Others who are less familiar with such issues may be confused when, for instance, property boundary lines don’t line up with features visible on an orthophoto image.
Full metadata would help to bridge this gap in understanding, although some further background explanation might also be necessary so that the general public does not naively expect too much from the mapping we provide them. Rather than expecting each mapping web site to provide its own explanation of this type, the professional community could address this issue by building a common resource to which anyone could refer.
Text: a long-standing challenge
Labeling of map features with their names has always been one of the most difficult aspects of map design. Computer-assisted mapping, especially GIS systems, has made things even more difficult because programming the software to allow intuitive flexibility in positioning text has been a huge hurdle.
The sophistication of web mapping software in dealing with text placement is even lower than that of its desktop (and more mature) cousins. DCiMap provides options to view annotation of features in some map layers, but the results are far from satisfying. In addition to situations where the software places text in odd places, the screen resolution constraints of garden-variety monitors only makes things worse. It remains to be seen how tolerant of these limitations users will be.
Form versus Function
Web mapping is a recent development and there is sure to be a good deal of evolution in upcoming years. One question about how users interact with these tools relates to a continuum from, on one hand, a simple and clean approach versus a more complex but comprehensive approach.
DCiMap definitely veers in the direction of being comprehensive. It offers so many functions and so many map layers all in one list that some users are likely to become confused. The large number of windows that the program opens during an extended tour of the website also can be a challenge to track efficiently.
Hopefully there will be some solid evidence in the upcoming years to help steer us all in these kinds of web site design choices.
These limitations aside, DCiMap is impressive in its breadth and depth as well as its successful integration of multiple existing databases.