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(Pen Computing Issue #53

ESRI And Trimble Used in Code Enforcement Fieldwork

By Sally B. Baxter, Dona Ana County, New Mexico

At 9:00 a.m. on a sunny day in early March 2004 the temperature is 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Birds are singing, and there isn't a cloud in the sky over this part of Dona Ana County, New Mexico. The winds are calm, so far. Over the next few weeks, warm mornings will slide into hot days as the relentless summer heat of the desert asserts itself. Winds will blow almost daily, gusting nearly to hurricane forces. But on this particular morning in early March, it's birds and bright blue skies as Dona Ana County's environmental code enforcement officers begin their first investigation of the day.

Officers Richard Guerra and Jerry Ford are developing procedures to fight the illegal dumping of solid waste. The year before, Dona Ana County became a leader in the state in environmental code enforcement. It was the first county in the state to hire officers dedicated to environmental code enforcement. The county has also enacted ordinances that include fines and imprisonment for illegal dumping. Although the county has had a mature desktop GIS in place for years, there was no way to effectively leverage that power for code enforcement fieldwork until a demonstration grant from ESRI and Trimble brought mobile GIS to the county. Mobile GIS has helped Dona Ana County modernize environmental code enforcement as it pertains to the illegal dumping of solid waste.

Dealing With Dumping

Illegal dumping is a problem faced by many rural governments. In areas where curbside trash collection is not available, residents sometimes find their own solution for disposing of household trash and other refuse. They dump it in remote or uninhabited areas. The vast stretches of open desert found in the county's 3,800 square miles provide such areas. The desert is crisscrossed by dirt roads and arroyos or the dry streams that fill with fast flowing water during the county's late summer monsoon season. The network of roads that provides recreational access to the desert for the county's 180,000 residents also provides easy access for illegally dumping solid waste.

Dona Ana County lies at the northern end of the Great Chihuahuan Desert in south central New Mexico. Its landscape features desert mesas, irrigated farmlands along the Rio Grande valley, and the young, rough peaks of the Organ Mountains in the San Andres Mountain Range. The terrain is the rugged, high desert of the American southwest and varies in elevation from a high of 9,012 feet above mean sea level at the top of the Organ Needle to a low of 3,729 feet above mean sea level at the point in the Rio Grande where New Mexico and Texas meet the Republic of Mexico. The varying terrain and stretches of undifferentiated desert make reconciling driving directions and sketched field maps to aerial photography in the GIS difficult. Mobile GIS has improved the accuracy of dump site location information by collecting GPS data that eliminates positional errors caused by misreading maps.

Identifying Responsible Parties

On this sunny day in March, Richard and Jerry are field testing a Trimble GeoXT GPS handheld device loaded with ArcPad and data from the county's GIS. A Las Cruces city councillor reported to the county commissioners that trash had been dumped along an irrigation ditch bank that appears to be county property bordering the city of Las Cruces. The councillor asked the commissioners to do something about this eyesore.

In the office, the desktop GIS shows the ownership of the property at the site. The property on the city side of the border is privately owned while the property on the county side belongs to an irrigation district. On site, the uneven terrain makes it appear that the debris, which is mostly tree branches and trimmings, is piled on the irrigation district's property.

As Richard photographs the site, Jerry uses the GeoXT handheld to record the physical location of the site, collect field data, and determine where the debris lies with respect to the city/county border. Mobile GIS can provide jurisdictional boundary information in the field. ArcPad is loaded with the county's parcel basemap, road centerlines, and jurisdictional boundaries. With the GeoXT handheld, the officers can answer jurisdictional questions by displaying their location on the map.

At this site, debris has been dumped on both city and county land. Both city and county environmental codes prohibit dumping and storage of debris. The property owner arrives on site and Richard and Jerry explain the violation. The owner agrees to immediately have the site cleaned up.

The county's size makes mobile GIS an ideal tool for field investigations. Prior to participating in the Mobile Government grant project, code enforcement officers gathered field data using pen and paper. They returned to county offices in Las Cruces and used the desktop GIS to locate sites under investigation, determine property ownership at the sites, and investigate any evidence that might indicate who was responsible for illegal dumping. Frequently, this information would lead the officers back to residences within a few miles of the investigation site. Taking GIS into the field has increased productivity and is saving fuel and other vehicle expenses by eliminating lengthy trips to the office.

Gaining Insights

The day's next investigation is approximately 40 miles north of the office, near the community of Garfield at the northern boundary of Dona Ana County. The dumping site is located near the solid waste transfer stations outside the community. The county's Environmental Services Department operates eight transfer stations located throughout the county. These stations serve as collection points for county residents who do not have curbside trash collection. There is no charge to county residents who wish to dump trash at the transfer stations. Richard and Jerry are investigating a report of an illegal dump site near the transfer station.

ArcPad is loaded with the county's parcel basemap, road centerlines, and jurisdictional boundaries so the officers can answer jurisdictional questions by displaying their location on the map.

The code enforcement grant project has yielded unexpected information about transfer stations. In planning the project, it was anticipated that illegal dump site locations would reveal areas where new transfer stations were needed. What the project has revealed, however, is that residents need to be educated about the availability of transfer stations and their hours of operation. Jerry reports that they have found "at least a dozen illegal dump sites within a hundred yards of transfer stations."

County residents haul their trash to a transfer station. If the station is closed, rather than haul the trash back, some residents may dump it in the desert. As Richard states, "They find the nearest arroyo and just dump it in there." The dump site near the transfer station in Garfield consists of general household trash.

Trash takes on a life of its own in the desert. Garbage bags deteriorate in the sun, and strong winds spread the trash across the desert. This trash has already begun spreading at this site. Richard dons gloves to begin searching for evidence of the potential responsible party, and Jerry inputs information into the GeoXT handheld.

Streamlining Data Collection

Mobile GIS streamlines data collection in the field. Custom input forms in ArcPad allow data to be collected more quickly than with pen and paper. Uploading data automatically to the desktop GIS in the office eliminates both the manual data entry of handwritten field notes and the errors caused by typing mistakes or misread field notes. The Mobile Government grant project included ArcPad for the GeoXT GPS and ArcPad Application Builder. ArcPad Studio, a desktop customization application, is part of ArcPad Application Builder. In ArcPad Studio, users can create custom forms that are then deployed to ArcPad.

GIS analyst Frank Dodd developed a custom data entry form that steps users through three data input pages. The first page records site information as latitude and longitude or uses the property's physical address. It includes an input field for contact information and a pick list of city and community place names. The custom program reads the parcel basemap and automatically populates the ownership information for the site. Richard and Jerry can also override this feature and manually enter data for off-site investigations.

The second page of the form is the materials information page. Radio buttons allow the type of violation to be selected. Check boxes are used for recording the type of solid waste found at the site. This list includes garbage (household waste), tires, metal, white waste (appliances), construction material, wood, or car parts, and an input field is included for adding other types of waste.

The third page of the form is the enforcement information page. It includes an input field for recording information on possible responsible parties. In New Mexico, if no responsible party is determined, the property owner is liable for the dump site so the custom form defaults to the property owner as the potential responsible party. This can be changed if information at the site reveals evidence indicating who the illegal dumper might be.

The enforcement information page also includes an input field for the citation number and radio buttons for the type of citation issued, if one was issued. Any additional information about the site can be recorded in the comments field. A pick list offers options for the status of the case-pending, improved, not improved, case closed, and no violation. There is an optional check box to schedule a follow-up visit to a site. Activating it opens the calendar control. Read only-data included in the data table is the date of inspection. Case numbers are automatically incremented. The case numbers are used to link digital photos to the field data in the county's GIS.

A second form for follow-up visits displays data from the initial visit on the first page. The second page has an input field for comments and a site status pick list containing choices for improved, not improved, and case closed. When case closed is selected, the program automatically populates the date closed field.

ArcPad Studio allows full control over form layout and functionality. The drag and drop design means no programming experience is needed to create basic custom forms. With a cursory knowledge of programming, the user can create more detailed forms. The forms can be any size up to full screen. Frank used the full screen size and located text entry fields in the top half of all pages to limit conflicts between text fields and the GeoXT handheld's onscreen keyboard.

The developer can create and control tools, buttons, and layers programmatically in ArcPad Studio. After field testing the custom forms, Frank added a button control to toggle the parcel basemap on and off to improve regeneration time.

The flexibility and power of mobile GIS allows Richard and Jerry to more quickly, efficiently, and accurately carry out field investigations. After completing the investigation of the dump site near the Garfield transfer station, they are able to investigate seven other sites that day as they work their way back to the office in Las Cruces.

Evaluating the Project

In the final evaluation of the project, Richard and Jerry like the rugged design of the Trimble GeoXT handheld, the improved efficiency and accuracy of fieldwork, and the ease of use made possible by custom input forms. While developing the procedures for Dona Ana County's environmental code enforcement, they had sought innovative ways to improve their methods. Mobile GIS has proven to be exactly the tool they needed.

However, they did have one complaint. They had to share a single GeoXT handheld and ArcPad license. Dona Ana County plans to remedy this situation. The county plans to expand the use of mobile GIS to include planning code enforcement and vector control applications. For more information, contact

Sally B. Baxter, GIS Manager
Dona Ana County, New Mexico
E-mail: -