GIS Online: Making Data Work Harder

The GIS department is able to generate “heat maps,” above, that show the frequency of issues or occurrences. This map shows the number and location of flooding complaints that came in the wake of the June 20 storm. 

The unexpectedly harsh storm of last June 20 had barely passed through when the complaints began to come in about flooded streets, yards and basements. Public Works Director Rudy Sukal entered each complaint into a tracking log that created a computer-generated “heat map.” The color-coded map showed the locations of the various complaints, making it easy to spot problem areas and prioritize which areas needed short- or long-term attention. 

That’s only one of the many useful things our Geographic Information System (GIS) can do.

For more than 20 years, Mt. Lebanon has had a Geographic Information System (GIS) database—a repository for digitized information gleaned from more than a thousand paper maps of our infrastructure that  showed the locations of traffic signals, manholes, sewer lines, fire hydrants, signs and much more.

GIS digital mapping emerged in the 1960s as an academic concept and evolved into a science that today is used worldwide by many organizations to solve problems, reveal patterns, project trends and see relationships among various geographic elements. But when Mt. Lebanon Municipality first ventured into GIS in 1996, it was very new to local governments. 

Municipal Manager Keith McGill, who was hired here as code enforcement officer in 1997 and later became planner, recalls the staff working with Gateway Engineers for two painstaking years to migrate data from a Computer Aided Design system into a GIS database. The preliminary work involved  taking aerial photos and doing fieldwork to ensure everything on the paper maps was where we said it was. Once verified, the data was entered into the computer and used to  produce digital maps that can be parsed into layers—a tree layer, a streetlight layer, a manhole layer—so that in planning a project or addressing a problem it now is possible to look at one or several layers at a time.

Over the years, as our GIS system has been regularly added to and updated, it has become an increasingly valuable cloud-based tool for identifying problems, finding solutions and even budgeting.

“The whole purpose is asset inventory,” says Michael Meseck, Mt. Lebanon’s GIS Coordinator.


Public Works Superintendent Dan Kirk and plumber Tony Mazurek can examine storm water inlets and upload information about the location and the work performed or needed to the cloud, where all municipal personnel involved with the project can see the data immediately. /photo: George Mendel

“Whether it’s crosswalks, or street trees or storm inlets, it’s knowing where they are, what condition they’re in, what needs to be done, and can make it easier to plan maintenance and to budget for repairs.”

Meseck, who has a degree in geography and GIS from Ohio University, has been Mt. Lebanon’s GIS coordinator since 2002.  Some of his past projects include a data layer that shows all 4,000-plus properties in Mt. Lebanon’s National Register Historic District; a map of Mt. Lebanon neighborhoods and a map of trails in eight Mt. Lebanon parks. Most recently, he has added two new data layers: one layer for tracking projects approved by Pennsylvania One Call, that ensures contractors do not damage underground utility lines during a work project; and the other layer for tracking refuse and recycling complaints.

The data will allow Mt. Lebanon to see—all in one place—which contractor is working where all over town, and to track refuse and recycling complaints by location and by type—recycling misses, driver complaints, partial collection, spilled trash, damaged bins. 

“Now you can see patterns, and it makes it easier to sort through the complaints,” Sukal says.

The mapping and data are useful for municipal planning purposes. Maps are available to the public. Residents can request hard copies of maps with up to 16 layers of information, including sidewalks, storm sewers, building footprints, contour lines and more. Map sizes range from smaller than 11-by-17 inches ($15) to larger than 17-by-22 inches ($30). Map request forms are online at or at the customer service center in the municipal building, 710 Washington Road.

In addition to making maps you can hold in your hands, GIS makes things easier in ways you can’t always see. Meseck worked with Gateway Engineers to implement a cloud-based mapping software program for storm water inlets. What’s so important about storm water inlets? Mt. Lebanon, along with every other community in Allegheny County, needs to meet requirements laid out in an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) consent order to correct illegal hookups into sanitary sewers that send untreated wastewater into rivers and streams when sanitary sewers are overloaded with storm water. The EPA mandate involved mapping and inspecting more than 160 miles of sanitary sewer lines and about 75 miles of storm sewers, and after that, ongoing repair and maintenance.

With the storm inlet program, public works employees inspecting the inlets can use iPads onsite to input information that goes directly to the cloud, where it can be accessed by all of the program’s users. A login and password can get users on the GIS system from anywhere. A dashboard can analyze all the data. About the only limitation is your imagination.

For several years, Mt. Lebanon has used a software program called Pavement View Plus to grade the condition of all of our roads and make it easier to prioritize which need reconstruction and which can get by with repairs or resurfacing. Now Public Works Director Rudy Sukal can use GIS data to allocate the $440,000 annual storm water management budget in the same informed way.

“The updates are done almost in real time,” Sukal says.

Sukal has become one of Meseck’s best customers. Along with the storm inlet trackers, Sukal can also track maintenance practices such as treating ash trees for the Emerald Ash Borer, and invasive insect that destroys ash trees. The street tree layer has been in the system for a long time. Now, crews out in the field can punch in data every time they trim or prune a tree, every time they treat an ash tree for Emerald Ash Borer, and can pull out data such as when the last time a tree was treated and when it is due for another dose. Sukal and Meseck are working on ways to use the GIS system to track other maintenance practices such as tree pruning, removal and planting.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” says Sukal.

When the June 20 storm complaints came in, the information that was input into the database showed not only where follow up was needed but also tracked progress, as the municipality continued to make repairs to storm-damaged assets for weeks following the storm. One click showed the nature and severity of the complaint, what work was done and when, and what still needed to be done.

Having access to all that data helps Sukal allocate resources for day-to-day work and allows him to calculate long-term maintenance and repair costs, a big plus in municipal budgeting, as departments start work on next year’s budget in July.

Meseck also is building a new GIS layer of pavement markings, such as crosswalks, turning lane lines and arrows, and stop bars, to monitor when they were last painted and what condition they are in.  Same thing with road signs. Again, just a few keystrokes from guys out in the field can update the maps in the cloud for municipal staff to use.

Field data collection—used initially to jumpstart GIS—remains an important component as its uses expand. User-friendly technological changes have made it easier for frontline workers to input information from the field.  “You don’t have to know as much programming,” Meseck says.

Meseck spends a lot of time on public works, but he works for other departments such as planning, public information,  commercial districts and inspections, and he would like to do more.

The commercial districts office, for example, had GIS make a map of the Washington Road Business District. The inspection office uses GIS to generate a map showing households with inspection issues or code violations. 

“I certainly want other departments to use it soon,” says Meseck. “If I can show them what I’m already doing, that could plant a seed in their minds. GIS is a tool for making everyday processes more efficient.”