Launch Slideshow

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2,000 needles in a haystack

2,000 needles in a haystack

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    Using a handheld data collection unit, Brandi Boderick of the Colorado DOT records information for a sign that is illegally located, i.e., advertising for a good located on a separate land parcel. Most of the time, sign owners voluntarily comply with CDOT notices of violations; only rarely do these issues result in litigation. Photos: Don Talend

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    Colorado's DOT is creating a single database of the state's billboards using handheld GPS units optimized with GIS software, customizable GeoAge software, and a comprehensive Microsoft Access database. Unlike many other wireless devices, the Topcon GMS-2 unit records GPS coordinates for the database.

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    Colorado DOT regional personnel have other primary responsibilities besides billboard code enforcement, so handheld data-collection technology is necessary to improve collection efficiency.

Attention-grabbing billboards so pervasively dot the landscape that it seems as though anyone can express their creativity any way they want.

But transportation officials like the Colorado DOT's (CDOT) Jerry Miller, PE, — the agency's outdoor advertising program manager — must see to it that billboards maintain an aesthetic balance with the country's wide-open spaces. As Miller and I drive around Denver, it doesn't take long for him to spot code violations.

He points to an electronic billboard advertising mattresses.

“That looks pretty harmless, right? That's the factory showroom, but the sign is on a different piece of property from the showroom, so it may be illegal.” He notes that the billboard belongs to a national outdoor advertising company whose management should know better. “If the sign reads, ‘Come here and buy this,' it's OK,” he says. “If it reads, ‘Go there and buy that,' it's not. It's a subtle distinction, but it's easy to spot.”

Violations in outdoor advertising typically result from financial motives and, in western states like Colorado, age-old “squatter's rights” attitudes toward land ownership. “You add money and the ease with which owners can physically erect or alter a billboard, and there's little compelling interest on anybody's part to play by the rules,” Miller says.

Indeed, regulating outdoor advertising seems like maintaining law and order in the Wild West (minus the shootouts). Enforcement presents quite a challenge for the agency, which has limited staff resources. Because Miller is also CDOT's assistant statewide utilities engineer, he must also divvy his time working with utilities and on special projects — so he had to figure out a way to work smarter. His solution was to use mobile GPS and GIS to build a geodatabase of the state's 2,000 billboards.

A FOOL-PROOF SYSTEM

Miller's first potential challenge was the agency's decentralized management structure. The agency splits the state into six regions. Tracking outdoor advertising is a secondary duty for regional employees, who report to their regional manager.

Each region had its own legacy database and reporting methods. As regional employees retired, their colleagues had difficulty quickly finding billboards in the databases. “It was almost a revolving door over a five-year period, and we lost our institutional knowledge of where we were at, where we were going, what we even had,” Miller says.

In Colorado, federal and state laws (see sidebar on this page) define three categories of signs: conforming, nonconforming, and illegal. The most common violation that makes a sign illegal is when a property owner lets a friend or relative advertise off-premise goods or services free of charge. Nonconforming signs were lawfully erected before the effective date of state laws but don't currently conform to them; the signs aren't illegal but must be maintained according to state law.

“Let's say you built a billboard and we changed the law five years later,” says Miller, adding that about 800 of the state's billboards are nonconforming. “We're not going to say, ‘We want you to take down that sign.' It's grandfathered in. But if that sign originally had four posts, that's all it can ever have. Therefore, we take many pictures to document any changes to it.”

Determining if a sign is legal or illegal also necessitates photographic records and pinpoint location. “If it's an illegal sign, that's where the attorneys might come in, so what we need are GPS coordinates precise enough to stand up in court,” he says.

With these challenges in mind, Miller bought several Topcon GMS-2 hand-held GPS units in mid-2008. In addition to 50-channel dual-constellation satellite tracking, the receiver's digital camera automatically links images to the unit's GIS feature. Besides location data, the GIS feature stores up to 60 additional component data. The unit also has an integrated electronic compass, replaceable/rechargeable battery, and an expandable memory card slot.

“I picked it because our eight field personnel aren't engineers or surveyors,” says Miller. “I wanted something they'd be comfortable with.” The units are easy to use because they operate on Windows-based software, complementing the agency's Windows-based Microsoft Access database.

Miller pulls his car into the parking lot of Total Positioning Solutions in Denver. Inside, Survey Development Manager Jeff Hull provides an overview of the GMS-2's highly customizable software program, GeoAge's Field Adapted Survey Toolkit (FAST).

The software has a desktop version for designing forms, establishing data sets, and uploading and downloading data to a mobile device; and a PDA version that runs on any Windows-compatible device. Hull begins setting up a demonstration file for recording and inspecting trees using the desktop version, which allows programmers to create question-and-answer fields that “walk” users through a process step by step.

Hull sets up a question in a 250-character window and then sets up the answer as a required field; the field agent could pick a date range, too. A single-select menu is created to force the field agent to select “pine” or “maple.” Multiple- or single-select menus indicate adverse conditions such as a fungus or insect infestation. Programmers can add headers, phone numbers, and other critical data, or import a text file with comma-delimited fields. For higher-precision devices like the GMS-2, programmers can select a submeter wide area augmentation system (WAAS) correction option.

“Jerry's got signs in the thousands; how does his team go out and get inspection data and spatial data on all of those signs? Very quickly,” says Hull, opening a calculator in the PDA version. “Plus, if I've entered a numeric field, now I can use a calculator.”

Playing the role of tree inspector, he selects from a pull-down menu multiple descriptions of a strange new insect. Next, he creates a question asking for an image of the tree's problem. From a pull-down menu, Hull selects “bugs” for the tree condition and can insert a photo or even a sketch of the insect. Finally, he creates a mandatory signature field, pointing out that the program timestamps field activities.

The question-and-answer format makes the software much more searchable. “If you wanted to know how many ‘bad' trees there are, you can't search very well that way,” Miller says. “Giving users a limited range of answers to choose from makes it a lot easier to draw that information back out. The same thing happens with our signs on a route. What if they call it I-70, Interstate 70, or an urban interstate? If you can control their answers so they can only call it I-70, it's much easier to get clean data.”

It's also much easier to generate reports through the Access database. A supervisor can ask for how many trees are diseased and, of those, how many are infested with a particular insect. The data also can be exported into a program such as DXF mapping software or a free application like Google Earth so assets within a given geographical area can be mapped and marked with icons.

BUILDING A UNIFORM GEODATABASE

Miller is building a GIS-based database, updated with each region's existing data. So far, the data for about one-third of the state's billboards have been updated. Once the initial GIS development is complete, employees can begin using it to maintain records of legal and nonconforming billboards within their regions.

“Now we have multiple photos tied to the same permit so that we can have a historical record,” Miller says. “What we're doing in our initial inventory is logging things about a sign that are easy to get. I want to know the location — that's where the GMS-2 comes in. I want to know the size. I want to know the permit number and I want inspectors to take a picture.” From there, regional employees will use their GMS-2 units to complete the remaining fields programmed into the FAST software. Periodically, photos will be taken for visual archives.

Miller expects the technology to give the department much more flexibility. For example, it should be possible for one employee to verify and update all billboard data throughout the state once the original inventory is completed. He predicts that it won't take long before employees wonder how they ever managed without such tools.

—Talend, of Write Results Inc., West Dundee, Ill., is a print and e-content developer specializing in technology and innovation.