This 57-inch interactive touchscreen “lives” in the lobby of the administration building. Hardware ($16,000) consists of a Samsung 570DXn LCD with Horizon Technologies Optical Touchscreen, Dell 755 Optiplex small form factor PC, UPS, and speakers. The system runs on Four Winds Interactive software ($5,000). Photo: City of Durham

All I had to do was take one step off the elevator to see that the Durham, N.C., Public Works Department was putting forth a big effort to interact with residents and visitors.

The touchscreen interactive display in the lobby was the first indication that communication is a top priority. “This lets citizens find out the type and details of projects,” says GIS/CAD Administrator David Cates. “We're constantly updating the maps and general information so that anyone can get specific details quickly and easily.”

Durham is known as the City of Medicine, no doubt because it's where Duke University's historical and world-renowned array of medical facilities call home. Public works employees work hard to maintain a home-like environment for nearly 223,800 residents.

“Keeping up with a growing population and development that supports an ever-changing city is why we needed to change our as-built submission process,” says Will Hughes, GIS coordinator and quality-control architect of the department's GIS as-built digital tool. “Today we can process 80 stormwater structures into our existing GIS in one minute or less.”

This type of progress doesn't happen overnight, or without a lot of pre-planning and dedicated effort. “We started slow, kept progressing, and now, five years later, we're proud that our approach worked,” he says.

It started back in 2005 when public works decided to update its Development Review Handbook. Two years later, a combined digital submittal standard was added to the handbook that clearly states that PDF and CAD files are to be submitted at the same time as any mylar or other final project document.

While these initiatives were progressing with external stakeholders, so were behind-the-scenes efforts.

A custom-designed tool that facilitates the direct import of .txt files (comma-delimited text files) was constructed to support the new standard. The import tool was created within ESRI's Arc Map using Microsoft's Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) and ESRI's Arc Objects.

“It allows the user to open a form, which is much easier to control and understand, and enter information about the project and the spatial location of the features directly into the form,” says Hughes. “We have a great sample and step-by-step directions on our Web site. Since we're trying to make our process as simple and direct as possible, no password is required. And, of course, we're always available to walk the client through the process.

“After the import form is complete, a series of procedures is initiated. The custom tool automatically initiates a series of procedures that reads the files and pulls the data directly into a versioned geodatabase.” The custom VBA tool (script) within ArcMap consists of one form and one module. The form is used to point to the data files (text files); the module reads the data files and loads the data into the GIS.

“Sounds simple, and it is, but it took us awhile to figure out how to make all the pieces come together,” says Hughes.

In July 2007, the new tool was ready. “We didn't require the data files for the first six months, but now we require them for every project. The data files are comma-delimited text files that contain the spatial information and attributes for utility structures; for example, ID, NORTHING, EASTING, ELEVATION, SIZE, MATERIAL, YEARBUILT. There are two data files per water, sewer, and storm utility system for a total of six files. One file contains the point information, the other contains the “from” and “to” identifiers for drawing in the pipes.”

For some reason, the usual resistance to change didn't happen. “I guess it's because we took the time up front to involve the right people,” says Cates.

The change is important because it enhances data integrity. Without data integrity, the next time someone steps up to the touchscreen and asks it to display the details about a public asset, the information they'd receive could be wrong.

Then it won't matter how fast or fancy the computer is.

— Janet Jackson (, a certified GIS professional, manages the GIS Group for McKim & Creed of Raleigh, N.C.

Web Extra

We search so you don't have to! For direct links to Durham's digital submittal standard and step-by-step directions for contractors, click here.