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Upgrading a Legacy GIS System on a Budget

October 22, 2019

Randal Hale is a longtime Fulcrum user and the owner of North River Geographic Systems, Inc., a GIS consulting firm based in Chattanooga, TN. He was kind enough to share the details of his experience helping his client — a local 911 office — convert their GIS system to a more affordable, flexible setup using Fulcrum!

What do you do at North River Geographic Systems?

I use mostly FOSS4G tools (and Fulcrum) with clients to answer questions or upgrade their legacy GIS systems into something more flexible. Sometimes I actually get to make a map. Sometimes I actually get to collect data but mostly it’s helping clients wade through the process of figuring out what questions to ask and how to answer them.

How did you become familiar with Fulcrum?

Back in 2013 I spent some time working in the U.S. Virgin Islands on an addressing project. I was in the field-work portion of the project (collecting and assigning address points). We had three study areas to work: rural, inner city, and a cross between the two where everything was uphill (that wasn’t as much fun as it sounds)… I called it “uphill urban.” (Planners, you are free to use that.)

Our first data collection solution didn’t work: too costly and way too unstable for the Caribbean environment. My coworker spent a ton of time researching what software we could use and she discovered Fulcrum. The idea that we could collect address points, pictures, and other data on our phones vs. an expensive pile of GPS equipment was new for 2013 (at least for me). So we completed the next two pilot areas faster with overall less hassle than we did on the first area. It wasn’t easy, but I didn’t wake up screaming in a cold sweat much after that.

Randal Hale and Chad Howard

Randal Hale and Chad Howard

How did you get involved with Henry County 911?

Chad Howard, the 911 IT Director for Henry County, had started researching alternatives for their GIS setup. They needed desktop, server, and mobile. The commercial alternative was outside of their budget. Part of his research turned up QGIS and other open-source software for geo. That took him to the FOSS4GNA conference in St. Louis in 2018.

I was there to teach a QGIS workshop and do some presentations. A mutual acquaintance, Ed Hawkins, made an introduction. We spent the conference talking about Fulcrum, QGIS, and how much fish Henry County had to cook to become the “World’s Biggest Fish Fry” (12,500 lbs, if you’re wondering).

Paris, Tennessee - home of the world's biggest fish fry

What problems were they experiencing?

I will probably butcher the explanation, but Henry County 911 is in charge of assigning addresses, field-checking current addresses, and maintaining road names. Plus they have to get this information into the 911 call center.

Chad was in this sticky spot of needing more software to get his job done. They had a couple of copies of ArcGIS and a file geodatabase. As the 911 database grew, more people needed to see the data and more people needed to the ability to work with the data. The easiest way for them to share data and to collect data was to put everything on a USB drive and pass it around the office or send it out into the field. They did have backups of it offsite, but it’s a tough way to maintain data. They were making the best out of their situation.

According to Chad, there were a few times the USB drive got lost or an old copy of the data turned up. It’s tough — so what do you do? Walk down to the store with your favorite salesperson and buy everything, or keep doing the same old thing? Hopefully you do what Chad did — something forward-thinking and run with a hybrid-open source/commercial setup.

How did you help them?

So after talking to Chad at the conference, we started working on a plan. We began with “What do you do?” and would end with “What do you want to do?” (“everything” is the right answer) and hopefully somewhere in between those two questions, we would generate a plan to implement a new system and new processes. At a very high level we were hoping for this:

GIS system with Fulcrum and open-source tools

The plan was to capture data in Fulcrum and share/push it into QGIS. The data is checked and it all is stored in PostgreSQL/PostGIS and served out through GeoServer. We debated even going straight from Fulcrum to PostGIS (which is possible through Fulcrum Desktop).

The easiest part of this was Fulcrum. They had used Fulcrum in the not-too-distant past and they were familiar with it. We decided to make it more central to the process than just something we used occasionally. We started there and made an app to collect address data.

Address data collection app

Chad set up a server in their office and we loaded a PostgreSQL/PostGIS and GeoServer. Next we moved the file-based geodatabase into PostGIS. That’s actually pretty easy now versus a few years ago. A few clicks from QGIS and all your data can live in an enterprise database.

Enterprise database

From there we installed QGIS everywhere someone needed it or thought they needed it. We quickly went from “one person at a time looking at the data” to multiple editors and viewers of their data. We built some forms in QGIS. Cleaned up some data. Overall it was pretty satisfying if you’re weird about your data not being clean.

Did you have any problems with implementation?

It wouldn’t have been fun if we didn’t have problems. When I started the conversion I knew the state of Tennessee has a 911 standard database. I didn’t understand exactly how it worked at the state level. The local database worked great but not so much with the state’s ESRI database.

The state had an ESRI-based script that ran every night that pushed the county’s file-based geodatabase to the state. We had this nice running PostGIS database and I wasn’t super excited about dumping it back out to a file-based geodatabase or shapefiles. So we worked with the state and were able to produce a GeoPackage that met state standards. Plus the state’s ESRI software was able to ingest it. Just like that we’re officially using GeoPackage in a production environment.

We’ve had a few other “process” issues where “the way you do things” in an ESRI environment had to change, like editing. I had a few functions in the database not quite doing what they should be doing. We tried Fulcrum Desktop and it worked like I wanted — just not the way they needed it as far as workflow.

We went to an entirely new process of data collection and maintenance in a week. I’m amazed we had as few problems as we did.

What was the outcome?

So the final outcome was success (believe it or not). I’ve talked about this Fulcrum/QGIS/PostGIS/GeoServer implementation quite a bit at different conferences. For a small city/county it just makes sense to move toward a mixed bag of commercial/FOSS4G software. Everything we installed works with everything else. We now have other parts of the county accessing data from ESRI clients. They’ve even convinced a few city departments to use Fulcrum to collect data.

Plus everything we did was pretty budget-friendly. Based off what everyone told me at the client’s location plus some research to make an apples-to-apples comparison, we rolled out about $33,000 worth of software for just over $2,000. My time would have cost the same regardless of which implementation we did, so the combination of this software made it an easy choice for a client with not-so-deep pockets.

Fulcrum vs. Esri cost

What’s next?

Chad has turned into a Fulcrum guru of sorts. He’s convinced a few departments at the City of Paris to use Fulcrum for a sign inventory and a pavement inventory. Combine that with QGIS and they are more functional than before. Chad also dove in with Mango Map and with a few process tweaks they have an updating online map now. That was a nice bonus because that was 100% Chad’s work. I wasn’t worried about an online map, just the address collection process. He saw a need and handled it with the system we had built.

I’ve actually continued refining the database beyond the install at Henry County. I’ve also been working on a National Emergency Number Association (NENA) database to work in the same way that the TN 911 database works (so far — success).

Other than all that, getting Henry County more functional with the open-source tools. We’re building road networks and looking at drive times, refining some of their emergency network polygons, and just pushing what they can do to help the citizens of the county. They have a giant GIS toolbox now and we have a lot of tools to leverage for everything.

Oh, and in general — I try to go canoeing more. All this mapping business and computer stuff can wear you down if you’re not careful.

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Fulcrum is a data collection platform that enables organizations to reduce costs, access critical data in real time, and improve decision making at every level. With Fulcrum, you can create custom apps using our simple drag-and-drop builder to turn your paper documents into digital forms that your field teams can quickly complete on mobile devices.