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GIS CAMA Conference: Thoughts on Tech and Property Assessment

March 2, 2016

Last week I attended the GIS CAMA Technologies Conference in Savannah, hosted by URISA and IAAO. The event was a meeting-of-the-minds for tax assessors, property appraisers, and the GIS / technical staff for the industry writ-large to discuss the latest in tech and trends for the assessors community.

I’ve been in the GIS business for a long time, but this was my first event specific to the CAMA (computer-assisted mass appraisal) and cadastral mapping industry. As such, I took the opportunity to soak up everything I could about the market and learn more about the particular pains that assessors have in advancing their data and technology stacks to take advantage of the latest and greatest things out there.

Parcel boundaries

On Tuesday I presented during the session titled “Technology for Damage Assessment”, in which Michael Prestridge and I talked about how Lake County is deploying Fulcrum for damage assessment operations countywide. Assessors are frequently the first source of property structure-level data, so emergency operations centers look to them for existing base data, and also the personnel resources to look at aerial imagery or (better yet) get out in the field and put eyes on the damage from the ground level. Fulcrum’s low barriers to entry, flexibility, affordability, and underlying power allow them to deploy a solution as powerful as any tailor-made solution, without the high costs of developing something themselves. We showed off what they’ve done with Fulcrum in a hands-on live demo without a hitch.

As an outsider to this specific market, but an expert in the data collection process in general, I wanted to provide my thoughts on the event from that context — an outside observer’s takeaways of industry challenges and potential solutions. So in this post I wanted to step back a bit and take a look at what tax assessors are actually responsible for, and how the data they create and manage is used by stakeholders. (This is US-specific, the details may vary in other geographies):

Tax assessors are typically county-level elected officials, with support infrastructure underneath their departments responsible for assessing property values inside their jurisdictions. They must do this regularly, in accordance with state or local law, and do so accurately, because appraised property values have massive impact on the real estate market, property tax collection, government revenue, and many more derivative areas that use assessor data for decision making and operations. The foundational nature of assessor data is incredibly important. For many cases it becomes the ground on which other datasets are built, so if it’s wrong, that’s not good. Most assessors are responsible for parcel boundaries, ownership information, structures, addresses, and more. They need to have good data.

Parcel survey map

Challenges and Common Threads

As with most local government, demonstrated by many in their talks and in my conversations with attendees, the lion’s share of the hurdles I observed are not technology problems, they’re political or people problems. Leadership turnover can negatively impact departments by changing directions with political winds (with the election cycle). But I also think what appraisers offices provide to intra-government departments, and directly to citizens, is poorly understood by the populace. As you can imagine, funding for local government efforts is often proportional to public support, and public support relies on a wide understanding of the value provided by budgetary investment. Presenters at the GIS CAMA conference had me convinced of the often obscure but critical value of the work that assessors do, but getting that message out to citizens is key.

It’s been commonplace in local government for the last couple decades for IT departments to develop in-house, custom applications to serve internal users, including assessors, GIS staff, public works, parks, utilities, and others. The last 5-8 years have seen a boom in SaaS software tools and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies that reduce the total cost of the tech immensely. Rather than spending precious dollars building custom permitting software, parcel base maps, or data collection tools, there are SaaS platforms out there for almost any requirement these days. As Frank Conkling, a Florida-based consultant in cadastral mapping, said during his talk: it isn’t government’s expertise to build and maintain software — IT departments should be looking to COTS products for the best returns. Imagine what departments could do if they spent their time on work that they’re uniquely positioned to do, instead of something they can lean on other experts for.

Data cleaning, preparation, and conversion for GIS parcel maintenance was another theme topic throughout. The “garbage in, garbage out” mantra is well known to anyone in the business of managing data. Getting your underlying data in order is critical to success when trying to publish content for the public or enable your data to be used in modern systems, as was reiterated by several speakers presenting case studies on their work. All the talk of struggles with data conversions had me wondering why I didn’t hear any mentions of powerful ETL tools like FME Desktop or GDAL.

‍Where Field Collection is Critical

The best source of “truth” with regard to what’s on the ground is an eyes-on assessment. You can scope out a lot of information from the sky with imagery from Pictometry and others, but there are still qualities you can’t see without being on site, and certain types of field surveys and inspections that can’t rely on passive overhead observation or auto-generated data. Cost management is a major factor in the motivation to rely on mass-collected imagery, but with the right tools and processes in place for capturing data from mobile, it can be incredibly cost effective. Old school pen and paper methods are rife with inefficiencies like data loss, inaccuracy, and delay. As we presented in our talk, going to a SaaS toolset like Fulcrum provides the ability to scale without a massive up-front investment.

Stakeholders and users of property data have ever-rising expectations of data accuracy, timeliness, and availability. Connectedness, technology growth, and open data contribute to this tide of entitlement, but if it’s possible to increase data accuracy and availability without soaring costs, why not look for ways to innovate? As IAAO president Pete Rodda said during one of his talks, citizens want to know a property’s value today, not what it was on January 1st.

Additional Stray Observations

There were a couple speakers talking about UAS systems for assessment. I’ve seen dozens of presentations from folks using drones for mapping, but many times it feels like a solution looking for a problem rather than a tool for real immediate value — a case of “shiny object syndrome”. At the CAMA conference that wasn’t the case. Keith Cunningham from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks talked about what they’re doing with UAS platforms for wildlife, pipeline mapping, and property assessment, with a dozen separate project demonstrations of how they’re using fixed- and rotary-wing platforms for aerial observation.

I was also thoroughly impressed by King County’s new property assessor tool, which is powered by Spatialest’s CAMA software platform. They’ve built an interactive self-service tool for viewing property value data alongside demographics, neighborhood boundaries, and more. AppGeo’s MapGeo product is another excellent solution for towns: a web-based platform for municipal data hosting and analysis. There are certainly some interesting tech products in the space, but as I touched on earlier, it’s incumbent on the community to share techniques and best-practices to reduce how often counties are reinventing the wheel.

Final Notes

Overall URISA and IAAO did a great job putting together a diverse range of talks while keeping an intimate enough setting for real discussion to take place. We’re looking forward to work more closely with our local government customers to take what we’ve learned from this community into the Fulcrum platform to make it even more powerful for municipal data collection needs.