Do I need a surveyor to map things in my community?

The long answer involves lots of caveats and what-if-but-then-again scenarios, with underlying theory and math related to spherical projection models and datums. However, it isn’t important in our context of online mapping and municipal geospatial data.

The short answer is “no” and “yes.” Here’s how to approach this issue:

Consider your purpose and stick to it

The overall  purpose of your municipal geospatial data is to provide reference-level information to your community and to provide management-level information to your municipal users. We discussed this in our last blog post. To achieve the relative on-screen accuracy that is sufficient, you can start placing pins and tracing areas from publicly available aerial photography.

When you create your sufficient data for mailbox locations (or the project of your choice) make sure to document when you did it and how you did it. You don’t need to be hung up today on whether or not you’ve created the perfect data suitable for every future use. By recording “metadata” about your current purpose, you’ll be able to provide disclaimers and reminders to other users or agencies in the future about the accuracy and precision of your data. Whatever you have done will likely be a good jumping off point for someone else in the future. Other, future, users can choose to use it as-is or refine it based on their purpose at that time.

But sometimes, the short answer is “yes.”

Within your municipal GIS, there are likely to be certain types of information that do require high precision and accuracy. An example might be modeling flows within a sanitary sewer system for capacity planning. For that type of project, you need to engage licensed professionals and the location of infrastructure should be collected by registered land surveyors.

Rules of thumb

  • If you can see it on an aerial photo and “good enough” is acceptable, start tracing!
  • Anything that needs to be located within 6 feet horizontal accuracy should be done on-site using field-grade equipment. Your own staff can do this type of work. You can find some great products for under $2,500 at Stakemill or rent equipment for short-term projects locally.
  • Anything that needs to be located closer than 3 feet horizontal accuracy should be done with survey-grade equipment by manufacturer-trained staff. You can still do this using your own staff, but the equipment costs and time commitment are higher.

Anything that requires elevation  information or horizontal accuracy closer than 1 foot should be done by a registered land surveyor.


an eternal now

Summer time and the living’s easy. Unless you’re in charge of facilities on a higher education campus. If that is the case, you may be caught up in a cycle of perpetual improvement. Many of the best campuses are.

Looking back to April, remember how we discussed dotting i’s and crossing t’s? Well, we all know that campus preparations in the spring may have also involved making some temporary fixes to make the campus shine.

But now that summer has set in, it is time for permanent fixes to prepare for fall and beyond. Consider some of these likely suspects for needed attention and perpetual improvement:

Campus circulation system, both vehicular and pedestrian – take a test drive or a walk around campus, ideally with someone who has never been there before ”“ does the signage system lead them to where they want to go? Are the roadways and walkways in good shape? Are painted signs or finishes in need of maintenance? Have cattle-paths/desire lines appeared?

Identifiable places and spaces – it’s hard to know the exact outdoor spaces that will be remembered most fondly – a great number of variables impact the student experience and their specific sense of place on campus ”“ but providing ample options is important ”“ consider:

  • are spaces used at night or during the day?
  • is there opportunity for lots of sun and ample cool shade?
  • do spaces need to look great once a year or all year round?
  • do you have spots that are formal and others that are informal?
  • can the spaces host intimate groups, grand receptions, either, or both?
  • are spaces natural and organic or structured and formal?
  • are spaces secluded or out in the open?

What about the physical elements that impact your image and identity? Walkways, entrances and edges, site furnishings, banners and flags. Is everything in good condition and coordinated or are elements in need of attention?

And finally, think of the living landscape. Summer is a key time for general bed maintenance, weeding, proper mowing techniques, and watching plants for water stress. And next month, we’ll share a more detailed checklist to address many more specific landscape and landscape maintenance items.

When many people are away enjoying vacations, maybe it will help to reflect on what has been written about Disneyland’s Main Street, described as “a perpetual tale of creation and re-creation, an eternal now.” The Disneyland Book of Secrets 2014, Leslie LeMon


an eternal now

Good Enough!

When is good enough really great? (cost vs positional accuracy of in-house data)

suf ·fi ·cient   sɒˈfiSHÉ’nt/    enough to meet the needs of a situation or a proposed end

There is always a cost to developing geospatial data. Cost can be in the form of time or in consultant fees.

Paid data geeks are always looking for data that are precise, accurate, and 100% complete, but this level of data almost never exists. And of course, the closer you get to 100% complete and accurate, the more it costs.

You can control costs and shorten development time by setting realistic requirements for geospatial data, recognizing what is good enough or sufficient to accomplish your project goals. When you set appropriate expectations, even though the quality of the information may be less than perfect the return on investment can be great.

Your data should:

Meet Operational Goals

Geospatial data for municipal government isn’t about creating the perfect product. It’s about enabling operations.

An inventory of street trees enables program oversight and strategic planning. A listing of properties that have “at risk” populations enables emergency management planning and incident response. Showing the relationship of rights-of-way and land use enables comprehensive planning and community visioning. The data isn’t the goal, getting something done is.

Sufficient data provides the level of detail you need to make the decision or find the asset that you’re concerned about right now.

Contain Cost

If you’re working with limited funding, sticking within the budget is primary. Cost overruns now will likely have a negative impact on your next project. Sufficient data is built with the recognition that time and money are finite resources.

Provide a Basis for Growth

Sufficient data allows for further expansion and refinement later. You can tighten up your accuracy by using better equipment later on, as-needed, or per-project. Make sure your data today is designed with the flexibility to add-on for future projects, but isn’t bogged down in  forecasting future use.

good enough

Triple Crown and Data Sets

Triple Crown and Data Sets

Last year, a horse named American Pharoah swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes to claim the Triple Crown. This hadn’t happened since 1978 and this year, many eyes will be set to see if a horse will win the Triple Crown again this year.

Statistically speaking, it is unlikely. A quick Google search will offer up all the statistics you would ever want to study to draw your own conclusion. Only 12 horses have ever captured this prize ”“ the first being in 1919. Only 23 horses have managed to win 2 of the 3 races. Many years, the Triple Crown title is not awarded at all but 1977 and 1978 are the only time it was awarded in consecutive years.

In fact, every modern day sport seems to have its own language, statistics, and data sets.

Yet in our data-crazy world, where do many colleges and universities keep their data? If your institution is like most, you have a plan room, packed full of important campus information…and no good or orderly way to access that information. Perhaps you also have an employee who has a mind full of information that no one else knows.

Perhaps, with some work, that employee could tell you how many parking spaces you have on campus. And of those spaces, how many are ADA compliant. They may also be able to tell you the amount of linear feet of sidewalk that needs to be replaced in the upcoming season. Or show you the exact location of all campus housing in relationship to campus dining.

With GIS (geographical information system) and geospatial data, you could answer all those questions and many more, faster than I could tell you American Pharoah has 0% chance of winning the Triple Crown again – only three-year old horses can run in the Triple Crown races.

Triple Crown and Data Sets



The First Step in Municipal GIS

When it’s time to have pizza, which of these do you reach for: a phone, a frozen pizza, a bag of flour?

Your first step towards starting a municipal geographic information system (GIS) is to determine your preferred project approach. Do you want to order delivery, bake frozen, or start from scratch? Will you hire someone to do the job, have someone provide you with all the parts and pieces for your use, or develop everything on your own?

GIS Options: “The Pizza Model”
Topping Options Time to Dinner Skill / Knowledge / Effort
More Choice Quick Little
Bake Frozen

Similar to delivery,

faster than scratch

From Scratch
Unlimited Longest Significant


be prepared

Presenting a graduation card and enclosed check to my young great-nephew, I was met with a blank stare. In the age of gift cards and pharmacy online shopping, I thought perhaps he wasn’t familiar with what a check was. Which, sadly, was true. But worse, my heart-felt and hand-written message inside the card was undecipherable to him.

As many elementary schools across the United States have dropped cursive instruction, we find even high school students transitioning to college without their own signature. And the act of dotting i’s and crossing t’s is not relevant to them.

I have no desire to get into a QWERTY verses cursive debate (at least not right at this moment), but instead want to focus on that concept ”“dotting i’s and crossing t’s ”“ completing the task, being meticulous, paying attention to detail.

As graduation season approaches, it’s time to do just that on campus. This can be such a fun time. Your focus can be on the spit and polish and finishing touches:

  • Adding fresh flags and banners
  • Seeing to container planters and hanging baskets
  • Erecting tents and organizing seating
  • Touching up paint
  • Shopping for a new bow-tie or scarf (hey, you have to look good too!)

The figurative dotted i’s and crossed t’s.

But the fun ends if you discover that a bulk of hard work also needs to be completed, not just the finishing touches.

Spring time may seem like an odd time to be talking about fall and winter maintenance but it may be the perfect time to help you in years to come. And it is actually the best time to evaluate what is lacking or wanting in your maintenance plans.

What are the things your facilities staff are spending time on now that could have been taken care of in the fall or winter?

  • Cutting back plant material and edging beds
  • Fountain maintenance
  • Walkway repair
  • Umbrellas ”“ taken down, labeled, cleaned, and stored

Here are a few suggestions of seasonal operational tasks that will relieve some of your pre-graduation, campus preparation burden next year.


  • Perform fall turf weed-and-feed conditioning
  • Begin leaf removal throughout campus (can be composted and turned into natural leaf mulch)
  • Plant trees and shrubs that are not fall digging or transplant hazards (examples of hazards include Oaks, Birches, and many evergreens).
  • Re-apply mulch to garden bed edges and winter-sensitive plants as needed
  • Clean up summer perennial foliage as plants go dormant ”“ Hostas, Daylilies, Irises, Daisies, etc.
  • Plant spring-blooming bulbs and seasonal annuals; dig and divide Iris clumps and replant.
  • Perform irrigation system winterization


  • Clean summer pruning tools, shovels, rakes, trowels
  • Clean and service lawn maintenance equipment
  • Begin snow removal tasks ”“ avoid dumping snow directly on top of shrubs, perennials, ornamental grasses
  • Apply snow melt chemicals with care ”“ do not overuse and do not apply directly on top of shrubs, perennials or ornamental grasses
  • Remove broken limbs from trees and shrubs damaged in winter storms
  • If time permits, gently brush snow loads from shrubs and low evergreens (do not attempt to remove ice from limbs ”“ this will cause them to break)
  • During occasional warm periods, check exposed mulch layers and re-plant any perennials, grasses or small shrubs that may have heaved in freeze-thaw cycles
  • Track any larger shrub or tree damage that will need to be addressed in spring
  • Organize and begin to place orders for next year’s seasonal annuals, other plant material
  • Organize and begin to place orders for next year’s tool and equipment needs, work gloves, plant tags, soil amendments, etc.

Let’s all remember the words of Benjamin Franklin (which I’m pretty sure he wrote in cursive):

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.

be prepared

Municipal GIS

Municipal GIS

Why develop municipal geospatial data when we all have Google maps?

Need driving directions? Use Google Maps, absolutely.

Looking for the nearest grocery store? Use Google Maps, very likely.

Trying to find the nearest fire hydrant? Using Google Maps, probably not.

Looking for which part of town has trash collection on Tuesday? Using Google Maps, no way.

When it comes to finding things on a map we all rely on what is the closest thing at hand, our cell phone. The dominant player in mobile mapping is Google Maps. They’re on every device that you’re already using and have some of the most current road and business data available. Google Maps market dominance isn’t confined to the mobile market, it dominates desktop browser mapping as well. But when it comes to conducting the day to day tasks of municipalities you’re out of luck. Google, or any other internet mapping/search company, is focused on building data sets that generate advertising revenue. They have put maps “online” so that people can find and do business with their advertisers. Not too many people are looking to advertise the location of polling places or designated redevelopment zones and as a result you won’t find Google developing those types of layers.

If you want to use maps of your municipality to enable ongoing operations, you are going to have to build the maps (and the data shown on them) yourself. At first this will seem like a daunting task, but you can start faster than you expect. For now, don’t focus on the “how” let’s focus on just the “why”. (We’ll address “how” next with the first step in municipal GIS.)

Below are five reasons why you should collect, develop, and use your own municipal geospatial data:


By building your own geospatial data you decide what goes on the map and what doesn’t. You decide who has access to the underlying information and how it gets passed along. You won’t have to worry  about violating data licensing agreements or complying with copyright laws because as the creator you hold these rights you can do anything you want with the data. Your municipality will become the centralized authoritative single-source for local data, as it should be.


If you rely solely on data available from outside sources, you are limited to the information that they feel is worthwhile to publish. This is often a very limited set of  features (data classes or objects) because they are collecting information over a very large geographic area. As a municipality, you can decide what is important to your community. You can develop an extremely rich and broad palette of features that relates to everything that is of concern to your agencies and citizens. Google doesn’t have a layer for local parade routes, but you can have one for your town. Bing Maps isn’t publishing the location of parking meters in every town, but you can have one for your borough. Yahoo Maps won’t show you which blocks have been marked for road improvements next year, but your township can map this with very little hassle. Apple Maps won’t show you which shade trees were replaced last year but your city mapping system can do it.


When you create your own municipal mapping data you can collect as much highly detailed information as you desire. Google Maps just doesn’t provide the specificity that your municipality is looking for in geospatial data. Data collection at a national scale is very expensive, so the number of attributes (characteristics) are often limited to a small number. But with a focus on your municipality alone,   the list of attributes collected can be as numerous (deep) as needed. Municipal park locations are shown on most online maps, but they don’t regularly include helpful information for users about park hours, facility rentals or whether dogs are permitted. You municipal map can include that information as well as protected data for municipal works about the number of parking spaces, types of play equipment, acreage, and maintenance status.


Google Maps provides you with a limited set of mapping tools and you can only use them as dictated by Google’s terms of service. When you develop your own municipal geospatial data you have no limit on how to transform or repurpose the information. When you develop the data, there won’t be any hassles if you want to export municipal geospatial information to CAD for your engineering department or exchange fire hydrant locations with the 911 center.


Google Maps will always look like Google Maps. When you make a special-purpose map showing vendor locations during the local festival it shouldn’t be cluttered with extraneous labels unrelated to the event.

Google Maps is designed for on-screen use. If you want to print their maps you have very few print size options. For a poster showing voting precincts and polling places you won’t be able to do that from Google Maps. When it’s time to update your official zoning maps or assemble your next comprehensive plan you’ll be happy that the data can be formatted to multiple page sizes form within your own municipal geospatial system.

Already started your municipal geospatial project or have some questions? We’d love to hear about it, add your thoughts in the comment area below.

Municipal GIS



March Madness is upon us. Whether you are a college basketball fan or not, you can’t help but be aware of it, as the headlines change from Sweet 16 to Elite 8 and Final 4. However, all along the way, one of the most endearing story lines year after year is related to the underdogs ”“ the Cinderella stories ”“ the David and Goliath match-ups.

We love the underdog! Villanova Wildcats, Jimmy V’s NC State Wolfpack, Gonzaga. Originally little known, these teams and many others found a following as they clawed their way to the top.

Which is truly inspiring to basketball coaches on every level of play. But what about you?

Where is your campus underdog hiding? The easiest way to find out is to take part in a typical campus tour. What parts of your campus are skipped on the tour? Or worse, what parts of your campus should have been skipped?

If there is an underdog on your campus ”“ a building from the brutalist era of architecture on your traditional campus, a quad that functions like a repellent, misleading walkways, dysfunctional gateways   ”“ that means there is also a Cinderella story waiting to be told.



Your grant reporting is due, requiring details on your façade grant program. How do you keep track of all those property details and status of the work?

It’s time for the annual holiday parade. How do you inform residents along the parade route of the details for the day?

Election day is coming and your residents need to find their polling places. How can you easily create maps to post or insert with utility bills?

Speaking of utilities, are you enacting stormwater or impervious coverage fees? How will you determine who pays what?

Time for a break ”¦ for your community ”¦ so you’re closing some roads to have a special street party. How do you inform residents, businesses, and the public about the road closure?

The answer to all these questions is three little letters ”“ GIS.

Derck & Edson started exploring geographic information systems (GIS) in 1999 and we’ve been actively using it in projects since 2004. “Geospatial” is a fairly new word (first used in 1970 by the Association of American Geographers) but humans have been creating geospatial information for longer than you might think.

At Derck & Edson, geospatial information underpins how we think about campuses, downtowns, and athletics. A sense of place, literally and figuratively, is the core of what we do.

Let’s talk about geospatial data

There is no question that municipal operations are tied to place. Keeping track of assets, incidents, and operations in real-time is within the reach of local government. If your municipality is not already using geospatial data to track and manage places and things, now is the time to start.

For readers not involved in government, the same terms, concepts, and instructions presented here will apply to anyone that is looking to use geospatial information to manage assets in any type of community or site.

So in the coming months, we’re going to talk about geospatial data. Here’s what you’ll find:

Short topical overviews

Just enough text to kick-start your geospatial thinking. Our next blog topic will be along this vein and answer the question “Why develop municipal geospatial data when we all have Google maps?”

Moderate length Q&A articles

These posts will focus on questions about strategic and operational issues in geospatial projects. An example is the third blog in our series entitled “When is ‘good enough’ really ‘great’?” that will explore the trade-offs between accuracy and cost in developing in-house data.

Longer how-to articles

These step-by-step guides will dive into the details of day to day geospatial tasks. The topics will include “Finding possible rental properties” and “Developing pavement edges from PA DCNR contour data.”

Along the way

We build all of our projects from strong foundations and assume you’ll want to do the same, so we’re building a glossary of geospatial terms for your reference. The definitions won’t be what you’ll find in a text book, but something more digestible and worthwhile for relating geospatial concepts to the world around you and the things you do every day.


container 3


A marigold in a paper cup. A fistful of wildflowers in a mason jar. The first daffodils of spring.

Flowers don’t have to be elaborate or complicated to make an impact. And your downtown will be better off if you keep that, and a few other tips and tricks in mind through all the seasons of the year.

Dead or alive

Flowers will look much better along your streetscape if they are living. This seems so obvious yet it is worth saying. To keep your flowers happy and healthy, be sure to build a plan for watering and also consider sun and shade. Many streets have a predominantly sunny side and a shady side. Choose your plants accordingly.

plants in shade      dead or alive

And yes, consider dead materials too. More and more, birch and other branches, pine cones, pumpkins, pine boughs, and gourds are being combined with plants or standing alone in a variety of containers.

Holding it all together

Containers can include planters, window boxes, hanging baskets, and more. Consider the size, shape, color, and material. Does your downtown need a standard for containers or does an eclectic mix suit your streetscape better?

container 1      container 4

And no matter the type of container, be sure to consider if there is ample room for these new additions. Planters bordering steps are lovely as long as they don’t make using the steps a problem. Likewise, flowering containers are much less welcome if they are occupying too much valuable sidewalk real estate or if you have to duck under their foliage.

container 2      container 3

Consider unconventional containers like wagons, bicycles, watering troughs, or even actual gardens. Whether you have lots of space or almost no space, find room for green and it will pay dividends.

Keeping it fresh ~ in spring/summer/fall/winter

Take the opportunity to change up your planters regularly. Think of this as an opportunity like putting away your summer clothes and pulling out your beloved autumn ensembles. Do you have seasonal banners? Then why not seasonal plantings for your containers? These changes for each season can become events unto themselves. And revolving planters also keeps the streetscape fresh and provides another point of interest for residents and repeat visitors to return and see what is new.


Adoption works

Program management is an important consideration for any undertaking of this nature. We already discussed the need for watering containers as well as seasonal refreshes. With everything else that is happening in a downtown, this great idea may quickly become daunting ~ unless you enlist help. The precedent has been set in numerous communities. Enlist the help of your local garden club, nursery or outdoor supplier, or just groups of interested citizens from students to retirees. Seek out long term relationships with local employers or churches. Help them let their community pride show!