GIS director shares map-making passion with public
Jeff Culbertson has always loved maps.
“Since I was a little kid, I was always fascinated with old-timely maps,” he said. “The old sea-fearing maps; I always liked those.”
As the director of Leavenworth County’s GIS Department, Culbertson now gets to share his enjoyment. And with the county’s map now available on the Web at gis.leavenworthcounty.org, he is sharing them with more and more people.
“We used to get a lot of walk-in traffic until we launched the website,” he said. “Now we have 500 hits a day, and it goes up every week.”
The former walk-in traffic and current computer viewers could be a potential homebuyer wondering what school district and other taxing jurisdictions a property is in, a developer curious what utilities are available at a site or someone researching county cemetery records to complete a genealogy.
All this is possible for those looking up a property on the website by clicking through the layers menu, which will also overlay such things as wagon trails that long ago passed over the property or show aerial photos from as far back as 1941.
As helpful as the department’s Web presence is to the public for those types of searches, its greatest usefulness is quality control, Culbertson said. The GIS department’s data has placed properties in the proper taxing jurisdictions and corrected the amount of acreage of properties from such things as a change in a river’s course or entry error when recording a deed.
“When we did reappraisal, we had hundreds of properties taxed at more acreage than they had,” he said. “They tried to report it when it was sold off, but it’s not really accurate unless you do a survey, and they didn’t do many surveys.”
His career is not one he could have envisioned when he started working for the county 26 years ago as a draftsman for the public works and appraiser’s office, Culbertson said. The county’s rare computers were reserved for such uses as a vehicle database.
He was working for a high-rise construction firm in Kansas City when a friend told him of an opening in Leavenworth County, Culbertson said.
“He asked if I knew anything about cartography,” he said. “I’d taken a course in college on it. I talked to them, and it seemed like something I could do.”
The opening was created as the county complied with a statewide property re-evaluation order. As part of the process, the mapmakers drew new county property maps from deeds and fresh aerial photographs.
It was an arduous two-year undertaking that required them to pull all deeds to the county’s 36,000 properties, which had turned over an average of eight times.
He started using computers in his mapmaking duties in 1992 when helping to update agricultural land evaluation for the appraiser’s office, Culbertson said. The work was first done through a painstaking manual process, but a computer was used when the state changed basic parameters and wanted the effort redone.
“We realized we had a database for all the other offices to use,” he said. “They realized the value to their departments.”
With the value of mapping efforts established, the GIS department was created in 1998, Culbertson said.
One of his charges and interests is documenting the 135 cemeteries in the county, Culberton said.
“We wanted to build a cemetery map where all the cemeteries are,” he said. “We’re still working on that. We’re limited in this office about how much we can actually go out and log headstones. We’ve logged 80,000 with volunteers.”
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But some long-forgotten cemeteries have no records or headstones to identify who is buried in the graves, Culbertson said. He said in such cases he wants anyone who might have knowledge or old records to contact him, such as the woman who brought in years of forgotten records for one rural cemetery.
Although relatively young, the GIS department is now thoroughly integrated into county government, Culbertson said.
“We interact with more offices and departments than any other department in the county,” he said. “Almost every department uses maps for something or other.”
His department used GIS to the point it has a GIS technician to manage GIS data, said Mike Spickelmier, county public works director. The department uses the data in lieu of surveys on small, in-house projects and to track such thing as utility placement.
“When I first started, this department wasn’t using GIS,” Spickelmier said. “It’s an incredibly powerful tool. Because of GIS, we are able to put a lot of things online for public access.
“For me, this is the greatest technical advance the county has made.”
With department heads such as Spickelmier, the GIS department doesn’t lack work, Culbertson said.
“We’re pretty much overwhelmed with projects we could work on,” he said. “There’s never any lack of projects. We have to decide what we can get to first.
“The biggest project is 911 addressing — straightening out all the addresses in the county. We’re hoping to get emergency responders to calls much faster when it’s 3 in the morning and pitch black out. The first step is to complete an address grid
And if trade journals are right, there will be more.
Culbertson said future GIS-aide applications predicted include smart road maintenance vehicles that can do the job without a driver in the cab.
That sounds like science fiction, but so did the applications available today when he started with the county a quarter of a century ago, Culbertson said.
“When I first started, did I see this coming? No,” he said. “I had no idea as a draftsman, I wouldn’t pick up a pen or pencil.
“I have no idea what’s coming. I’ll just roll with it.”