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Web-based GIS application for the Rivers State government in Nigeria: Spatial component of the e-service portal

RT Sibe
E-Sense Technologies Ltd
Port Harcour
[email protected]

Geographic Information System is fast becoming a global tool in effective governance. This has become even more acceptable with the advent of web-based GIS applications in today’s world with widespread Internet access and fast connection speeds. This paper discusses the implementation of the web-based GIS Application designed for the Rivers State Government as part of the E-Service Portal. The paper reviews the history, general concepts and technological considerations. It takes us through the whole process of design implementation: choice of technology platform, programming paradigm, operating environment, application architecture and spatial datasets. The paper concludes by advising governments across the globe and especially in developing countries to leverage on the potentials of low-cost web-based GIS applications like this for more stakeholder participation and effective governance.

Geographic Information System (GIS) is fast becoming a global tool in effective governance. Various governments across the globe, especially in developed countries, have successfully deployed location-intelligent applications for effective planning for sustainable development. This success has been hugely attributed to the fact that in every society, the government is usually at the fulcrum of sustainable development which in itself requires spatial considerations. Therefore, GIS has become a natural tool for effective governance. It is necessary for us to get a working definition of GIS. The National Center of Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) defines GIS as a system of hardware, software and procedures to facilitate the management, manipulation, analysis, modelling, representation and display of geo-referenced data to solve complex problems regarding planning and management of resource. It is a simplified, yet systematic way of representing geographic reality. It is noteworthy to mention that GIS is much more than maps. A GIS can perform complicated analytical functions and then present the results visually as maps, tables or graphs, allowing decision-makers to virtually see the issues before them and then select the best course of action. The advent of GIS has broadened the application areas of mapping. GIS has changed from been just a tool for mapping physical geographic features to a tool that can map just about any feature – from physical to socioeconomic, as long as it can be tied to some geography. Another great feature of mapping applications is that it allows for different layers of information to be combined, analysed and studied in relation to each other. With GIS, trends could be revealed, patterns extracted and scenarios simulated (Sibe, 2009).

Historical review of GIS AND Web mapping
A peep into history shows that what we now know as mapping started as representation of geographic features on clay tablets. This has over time evolved into GIS with the advent of sophisticated computers. It would be noteworthy to mention that no single discipline can be credited with this evolution as what we now call GIS came through multiple parallel but separate applications across numerous disciplines (Pickles, 1999). GIS has today found even more acceptability with the advent of Web-based mapping applications. The use of the Web as a dissemination medium for maps can be regarded as a major advancement in cartography and opens many new opportunities, such as real time maps, cheaper dissemination, more frequent and cheaper updates of data and software, personalised map content, distributed data sources and sharing of geographic information (Neumann, 2007). With the advent of the concept of the World Wide Web and the Web browser through research works by Tim Barners-Lee and others, the Internet has changed the way we do a lot of things. Several applications have leveraged on the World Wide Web with the fast Internet speeds of today to get more acceptability and patronage. This is exactly the case of Web-based mapping applications. Web maps can be classified as static or dynamic (Kraak, 2001). With recent advances in Web mapping technologies, this classification can be further expanded but we shall not be going into much details of this.

THE GIS foray in governance in Rivers State
In Rivers State, the government has gradually introduced the use of GIS. Recently, the government commenced the RIVGIS project. The project is basically a Land Information System which, upon completion, should automate land allocation, administration and management. Also, the government, in realisation of the fact that several organizations (development partners) in the state have spatial datasets, decided not to work in isolation. To this end, the state, through the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Department, decided to embark on mop up and harmonisation of spatial datasets with development partners in the State, willing to share them with the government. This project was successfully completed in 2009. Only recently, the ministry of Water Resources and Rural Development announced plans to deploy geospatial applications in the planning and management of water projects in the state. The ICT department has also made significant investment in geospatial infrastructure (data, hardware and software). The state government through the ICT department also embarked on the design of a Web-mapping component for the e-service portal of the state which this paper shall discuss extensively. Surely, the future of GIS in the state looks brighter than ever.

The need for a Web-based GIS application
As mentioned earlier, the government of Rivers State and other development partners in the region have made significant investments in the acquisition of geospatial technologies. However, it is sad to note that there have been very little success rate in patronage. An obvious obstacle has always been that the application has been limited to only users with sophisticated IT knowledge. Only the privileged few who understand the workings of GIS could use it, thus it had limited patronage. Another challenge is the fact that considering the huge cost of desktop geospatial applications, it is impossible for everyone to ever have access to it. Therefore, this project was borne out of the desire to create a user friendly platform that will avail the ordinary user the opportunity to be able to carry out basic GIS functionalities. The significance of this is that as long as one can use Internet explorer and other Web browsers, they should be able to have access to interactive maps and perform basic mapping operations like pan, zoom in/out, identify features, search for features, print map display, add/edit shapefiles etc. Also, because the application will be deployed on the Internet, more persons who ordinarily would never have access to traditional desktop GIS tools can now do so even in the comfort of their room at no extra cost. As mentioned earlier, the project was initiated and sponsored by the Information and Communication Technology Department of the Rivers State Government and implemented by an indigenous consulting firm, E-Sense Technologies Ltd.

Design implementation

Functional requirement of the mapping component
I have already discussed the project motivation in the course of this paper. At the time of starting the project, we were faced with the challenge of designing a user friendly Web-based GIS application from scratch. A summary of our findings in the system analysis shows we needed to come up with a system with the following features:

  1. Mapping component
    1. Renders maps stored on a server in the shape file format
    2. Supports tools for zoom in/out/full extent, pan, feature identification, distance measuring tool, area measuring tool, print map display tool
    3. Shows the current scale of the map display
  2. Table of contents component (TOC)
    1. Acts as a buddy control to the mapping component
    2. Renders layer information of the layers currently configured on the map control
    3. Provides options to move layers up and down
    4. Provides options to set the visibility of the individual layers
    5. Provides facility to set visibility of the labels of individual layers
  3. Search facility
    1. Search facility enables users to find locations on the map
    2. Users will provide inputs like area to be searched (city/place/town)
    3. Users would select a category in the following categories
      1. Banks (PH)
      2. ATMs
      3. Primary schools
      4. Secondary schools
      5. Tertiary schools
      6. Hotels
      7. Police stations
      8. Bus stops
      9. Gas stations
      10. Government offices
      11. Approved dumpsites
      12. Markets
    4. If the user is not providing any input on place/town/city, the system will assume that the results will be for the current map extent
    5. Upon successful query, user should be able to see list of rows selected from the respective category as a popup window
    6. In the results table, user can point and zoom to the specific feature on the map
  4. Administrator
    1. A page to be developed for the administrator loading and configuring layers
    2. Page will be secured by the password
    3. Administrator will have option to select any shape file and load it on to the server
    4. Administrator can select any shape layer and configure it for the style, colour and label field parameters

Technology platform (map engine)
No specific technology was prescribed for the design team, but of course we had certain considerations and limitations such as budgeting constrains, development time, technology availability, interoperability, flexibility and scalability. Although there are several other Web map engines, we narrowed our research on MapServer, ArcIMS (ESRI) and ASPMap. Although each of these has its unique strengths and weaknesses, they can be compared based on certain topical issues. A summary of the comparative analysis of the three is given in the table below.

Table 1.0 Comparative analysis of web mapping platforms

We had to settle for AspMap putting into consideration the cost, development time and functionality. Although the most effective would have been the ESRI technology (ArcIMS), but it is a lot more expensive and in fact in this application may be grossly under-utilised. Aspmap on the other hand could do everything and even much more of what we needed to achieve and it is also relatively cheaper to implement in terms of cost and development time. This was a perfect fit for our budget and expected results.

AspMap is a set of high-performance, Web mapping components and controls for embedding maps in ASP.NET and ASP.NET AJAX (Asynchronous Javascript And XML) applications. AspMap gives users the ability to generate maps, drill-down capability, thematic mapping, routing, vehicle tracking and other features that, generated on the server, will make the maps fully interactive on the client-side (VDStech, nd). It has the following features:

  • Multiple map layers
  • Dynamic map layers
  • Pan and zoom through map layers
  • Five Web form controls including map control, legend control, MapToolButton control, zoom bar control and WmsService control
  • Built-in support for vehicle tracking without page reloading (AJAX).
  • Scale dependent layer display
  • Map image transparency
  • Automated relates from map data to databases
  • Translucency support
  • Draw points, lines, ellipses, rectangles, polygons, labels and text strings directly onto maps.
  • Client-side JavaScript API.
  • Support for ASP.NET AJAX.
  • Support for WMS (Web Map Services).

With the concept of Object Oriented Programming (OOP), software development is no longer an art but is now an established engineering discipline hence the field of software engineering has become even more popular. OOPs typically have the following features:

  • Encapsulation
  • Modularity
  • Polymorphism
  • Inheritance

These features ensure that programs are approached as components and objects like any other engineering product. Thus these components can be re-used, inherited, modified, etc with ease. This was considered in the choice of my programming language, thus programming was done on the Microsoft .net platform using C#. This ensured that the programming was modular, flexible, functional and easy to debug.

Operating Environment

Server software requirements include:

  1. AspMap server components and controls
  2. Ajax server controls
  3. Microsoft Dot Net Framework 3.5
  4. Microsoft Windows 2003 Server.

Client side requirements. A client only needs to have any of the standard browsers starting from Internet Explorer, Firefox Mozilla, Google Chrome and others. The client is also expected to be connected to the Internet.

Application Architecture
The figure below shows the application architecture in modular form.

Fig. 1.0 System Architecture

Data gotten from a recent field data acquisition exercise and those from a previous data mop-up exercise were used. Data quality is a pillar of any GIS implementation and application as reliable data is indispensable to the user in obtaining meaningful results (Toth and De Lima, nd). The collected data had to go through a series of quality checks to ensure completeness, precision, accuracy and integrity. Control points were established to ensure that datasets make accurate spatial sense. Attributes were also checked to ensure that it shows the right information. Data that passes our quality check process was harmonised and projected using same projection parameters to avoid any spatial displacement.

Screen capture
The figures 2.0 to 5.0 below show screen captures of some of the application pages (interface).

Fig 2.0 Screen capture of application main menu (labeled)

Fig 3.0 Screen capture of application showing results of search (in this case Protea Hotel)

Fig 4.0 Login Page
Fig 5.0 Screen capture of Shapefile upload page

Fig 5.0 Screen capture of Shapefile configuration page

In the course of this paper we have looked at the GIS technology and Web mapping applications. We also x-rayed specific attempts by the Rivers State government to use GIS in governance and narrowed down to the Web-based GIS application for the e-service portal. The project was a huge success considering the results achieved and the lean resources available. An ordinary user, with a working knowledge of Web browsers, can now perform tasks hitherto restricted to the GIS user with sophisticated skills. This has ensured that more and more users become “spatially aware” and location sensitive. Governments across the globe and especially in developing countries can leverage on the potentials of low-cost Web-based GIS applications like this for effective governance.


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