Web-based GIS is becoming more common, not only in engineering and consulting firms, but also in public works departments.
Photo: PBS&J Web-based GIS is becoming more common, not only in engineering and consulting firms, but also in public works departments.

Parcel data, regional and community maps, facility as-builts, building permits, and other collected data are the longstanding capital of public works departments. Systems to manage and better analyze these pieces of information, however, have advanced with technology, and public agencies need to be on this cutting edge.

For example, database applications give planners the ability—and time—to view different arrays of development impacts. Easy-to-use Web-based geographical information systems make every employee capable of printing detailed maps. Electronically stored as-builts avoid long searches through flat files for the right plan. Inspectors can redline parcel maps or process building permits in the field using laptops, eliminating the delay and inherent inaccuracies of transferring handwritten data.

Technological applications tailored to meet an agency's needs offer real, direct benefits. By streamlining data to provide a single, accurate source of information, employees can be more productive, and time-consuming errors can be avoided.

The advantages are clear. But once an agency is convinced upgrades are needed, two questions arise: First, can we find an engineering firm that provides a useful tool instead of a cumbersome or unreliable system? Then, do firms exist that understand both the well-established patterns of public works departments and the latest technology?

The answer to both questions can be “yes” if public works staff selects a consulting firm that has successfully aligned traditional engineering services with cutting-edge technology. The best firm for the job will demonstrate three characteristics: a proven track record in public works projects; a clear understanding of the need and scope of proposed information management upgrades; and a resume of specific, successful applications created for other clients. By looking for these factors, less-qualified consultants are eliminated, such as technical consultants unfamiliar with a public agency's inner workings or well-established engineering firms not yet fully versed in technological solutions.

The good news is the search will not be difficult. The engineering industry is in great part meeting the goal of integrating general engineering services with technological tools. What are the signs of a commitment to embrace technology? The firm will have a separate information solutions department focusing on clients' needs for services such as database creation, mapping, programming, hardware management, and other applications. A point person, or technical lead, will be assigned to different sectors—civil, environmental, transportation, construction—to address their specific needs.

As a result, the firm is a one-stop shop that can tie technology to any project. Studies show this new model is more cost-effective than a general services engineering firm hiring specialized sub-consultants. In addition, products and solutions are more consistent.

By investing in technology, the firm has survived the learning curve and has standardized platforms, operating systems, and software systems. Everyone has agreed on one approach so the tool bag is both complete and streamlined. Past projects demonstrate the ability to tailor tried-and-true applications to address clients' needs instead of a laundry list of tools used for each different job. The successful firm has provided clients with the best tools to do the work in the most creative, effective way without excessive limitations.

Innovative technological applications will play a part in every agency's upgrades in the next few years. A multi-tasking traditional engineering services firm that demonstrates a culture of continuous improvement with respect to technology is the best choice to help public works staff stay on top of today's—and tomorrow's—demands.

Marty Brown is the chief information officer for consulting firm PBS&J, Miami.