By Jenna Martin
With just a few clicks of a mouse, residents can have all of Columbia County at their computer screen.
But for those within the county's Geographic Information Systems department, a little more work is involved.
GIS personnel are charged with providing geographic information and services for not only public use, but for several county departments, including emergency responders.
As a result, the county's mapping system undergoes constant updating, which is a multistep process.
"It's interesting because just a few years ago nobody knew what GIS was, and now it's starting to catch on," said Mary Howard, the county's GIS manager.
The purpose of such updates is two fold, Howard said. In addition to adding new information to the county's database, she said any dated data is checked to ensure accuracy.
In the case of new developments, the process begins once plans have been submitted to the county, Howard said.
Before street names are sent to the U.S. Postal Service, they are checked by GIS staff to make sure similar-sounding names or duplicates don't exist.
Once addresses have been assigned and roads have been paved, county GIS technicians such as Ernestine Phelps go to the site to collect data that is then entered into a Global Positioning System unit.
Barring unfavorable weather conditions, Phelps said she spends most of her time in the field.
"I enjoy being outside," she said.
The information collected by Phelps and other technicians is transferred from the unit and downloaded onto a computer where it's overlaid with aerial images of the county.
Aerial pictures are taken every two years by an airplane equipped with a high-tech camera. The next aerial update is scheduled for February 2011, Howard said.
"We pick up so many new things on the aerials because there's just so much stuff that changes, with the commercial areas especially," Howard said.
After the data downloading is completed, Howard updates "Maps Online" on the county's Web site and sends the new material to various county entities, such as emergency dispatchers, Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue, the Columbia County Sheriff's Office, Gold Cross and the Columbia County Board of Education.
The maps also can be used internally among county departments, including the Tax Assessor's Office.
"To some degree, we're basically a part of everybody," said GIS Planner Chuck King.
The collected data also is used to update major mapping Web sites, such as Yahoo and Google Maps, and GPS units in vehicles.
As the county continues to experience rapid growth, the GIS department, officially formed in 2004, likely will remain busy keeping up with the pace of development.
"We're getting a better grasp on it every year," Howard said. "It's grown from a department of one to six, which is great because now we have enough people to where we can really knock some stuff out."
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.