City of Huntsville GIS team celebrates 20 years of innovation

single-meta-cal February 14, 2022

As a child, Amy Kenum remembers taking cross-country vacations with her family in the summer. It was during those trips that she fell in love with studying maps, exploring the geography of different places and taking in all the natural wonders around her.

Kenum, a graduate of the University of North Alabama, now leads the City of Huntsville’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Office, which is celebrating its 20-year anniversary. Hired out of college to work for the City, the Speake resident is one of five employees who have been with the office since its inception on Feb. 14, 2002.

“Being on the cutting-edge of technology and working in a group of innovative people for the last 20 years has been a great experience,” Kenum said. “When the department was created, most people didn’t really know the capabilities that GIS could offer. Our department needed to show what we could accomplish. We all had to work together to create new data, develop new workflows and build applications.”

The beginning

One of the GIS Office’s first significant projects was the release of its public online interactive map with aerial photos in July 2004. City employees and residents used the map to view imagery and digital data of Huntsville for the first time, before Google Maps was created in 2005.

GIS office 2002

GIS employees stand for a group photo in 2002, the year the office was founded.

Thomas McDonough, a GIS program specialist for the City, said the project took a lot of time but was well worth the effort.

“First announced to the public in 2004, the webpage has been through six versions and offers over 100 layers,” he said. “It drastically reduced the number of phone calls and walk-ins to our office as well as the amount of paper our office consumes. We now have almost 100 webpages that are essential tools and time-savers for many.”

The office also took multiple data sets across the City and modernized processes for the first time. For example, every City department that used addresses had its own address table. GIS reconciled all the addresses into one standardized table and built scripts and models to streamline the update process. The office then worked with Information Technology Services (ITS) and Engineering to ensure the address table was updated regularly and all City department applications were working from one address table.

“This address table is still used today, and the process has continued to evolve and be added to over the years,” Kenum said. “I have been asked to speak at several conferences about the techniques used in the process. We have had other cities call us, visit our department and ask for the workflows to show how we are doing what we were doing.”

The GIS Office also reconciled and created full databases for the City’s wastewater and stormwater systems. In addition, they digitally mapped every structure, road, sidewalk, driveway, pond, park, cemetery, bridge and thousands of other features in the City. These are not one-time projects. The GIS staff has continued to maintain these databases, update the processes with changing technology and software, and add more capabilities.

Serving the public

Today, GIS manages over 650 feature classes and has 90+ online applications, 64 which are available to the public. Area residents can view a variety of online applications to learn who their City Council representative is, what day their trash will be picked up, what their home or business is zoned for, if they are in a flood zone, what type of soil is on their property, what school zones they are in, look at historic maps and much more.

GIS Specialist Steve Perkins said GIS never stops learning about, revising and updating its systems.

“We add new information and tools every year,” he said. “We look out for one another, give each other praise for great work and give advice when asked. We are all passionate about our work and always give our best effort. We rarely ever refuse a request and see new, difficult projects as a challenge to be solved. Working here in our group, there is never a dull moment, and there is always a new issue or new project to fulfill.”

We are all passionate about our work and always give our best effort. We rarely ever refuse a request and see new, difficult projects as a challenge to be solved.”

Kenum said GIS strives to build applications to assist everyone by making information available at the click of a button. Citizens can search for the closest park, find greenway trails, look for a new pet to adopt, do genealogy searches at local cemeteries and find native species in the area.

Because her staff has a “heart for public service,” Kenum said each team member is willing to help in any way they can.

“Everyone in the department has their own special skillset and there is a comradery among the employees,” she said. “If one person doesn’t know how to do something, others will jump in to help.”

What’s to come

It’s no surprise the department has received numerous honors for its innovative work over the last 20 years. Among them are Special Achievement in GIS awards as well as recognition for assisting with specialized projects from the Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency, Community Development and the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Board.

The office has grown to 15 employees over the last two decades and proven itself as a driving force in making Huntsville a better place. Naturally, Kenum is excited for the future.

“GIS is such a fast-changing technology that the sky really is the limit,” she said. “In the next 10 years, I expect our GIS services and applications to continue to grow and become more advanced than ever before. With the support of our Mayor, department heads, and an innovative staff, I am very excited to see what our department develops next.”

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