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New System Could Provide Wealth of Geographical Info

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Nov. 16, 2006 — After years of research and collaboration between various government agencies, work is under way to launch a local Geospatial Information System (GIS) — a comprehensive database offering residents access to a wealth of geographical information about the Virgin Islands.
In an effort to promote and study the implementation of a GIS, a group of both public- and private-sector individuals have come together to form the V.I. Geospatial Information Council, which met for the first time Thursday morning. During the meeting, council members talked excitedly about the "future" of the system and the need to provide "24-hour, real-time information" to homeowners, businesses and government officials.
As the project progresses, the council will also be tasked with devising policies, procedures and guidelines for the sharing of such information; creating partnerships with local and federal organizations; and finally, promoting the development of the GIS.
"Think of it as a governmentwide reference book, or guide to our natural resources," said Stevie Henry, acting coordinator for UVI's Conservation Data Center. "With this system, we will be able to go online and get things like real property information and maps of the islands. We will be able to pinpoint where people live in case of an emergency. And for agencies, like the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over zoning, we will be able to properly plan for things like building schools or homes."
Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards added that the system will also feature data collected by two Continuously Operating Referencing Stations (CORS) set up on UVI campuses in both districts. "This is technology on the cutting edge," he said during the meeting. Richards explained that in addition to providing "more accurate" data collected during land surveys, the CORS will measure movements in the Earth's surface.
The CORS, which cost $100,000, were installed during the summer by the U.S. Geodetic Survey, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"This will help us to plan and protect for earthquakes, tsunamis and even hurricanes," he said, adding that global events, such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 tsunami in Indonesia, necessitated the development of CORS technology.
The development of the GIS took root in the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, which initially sought to provide a database to link together the various divisions and to catalog data collected during the ongoing property tax revaluation project. However, Richards said that as the information was collected, "it became evident" there was a need to expand the project and use the data to connect "government departments and agencies across the board."
Richards said to date the project — including research, training and the execution of two public GIS forums– has cost approximately $500,000. Funding was provided at both the local and federal levels, including contributions from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Property maps stored within the system, for example, could be used to develop a comprehensive land- and water-use plan, officials said. "No longer will the senators be haphazardly rezoning and deciding where to put things," said Claudette Lewis, DPNR assistant commissioner.
Lewis added that flood-insurance rate maps scanned into the system — highlighting major watershed areas — will also enable the department to plan for building houses, schools and public facilities. Lewis specifically mentioned the Mon Bijou area on St. Croix, which she called a "huge flood zone."
"If we had had these materials years ago, we might have been better able to determine where to put the public housing that now sits in the area," she said.
Basic property tax information — such as the size of a particular parcel, what kind of structures are on the land and how many rooms each building has — can also be used by emergency service workers. "A lot of the information people give out on a daily basis is location based," Henry said after the meeting. "If you have an emergency, for example, and you call a 911 operator, they're going to ask you for your address. In that case, all the person has to do is access the system, and they can automatically see where you live and dispatch emergency vehicles accordingly."
During the meeting, Henry said that digital property photos will also be incorporated into the system in 2008. He added that information stored in the system can be updated and accessed 24 hours a day. "If you need it, it will be right online," he said.
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