Morrison County individual property data will soon be more accessible to residents.
Land Services Director Amy Kowalzek and GIS Coordinator Brad Bolton discussed changes they want to make to the county’s GIS software with the county council on Tuesday. As part of this initiative, more information will be available via “open source”, or for free.
“Basically, you have public information or data that you’ve created and maintained, you make it available for users to obtain in some way,” Bolton said.
He said he first saw the trend for counties to release more information as open source in 2015 and considered it at the time. He revisited it in 2020, but COVID-19 happened and he decided it wasn’t the best time to propose changes to the county’s fee schedule.
Now, he said he’s definitely ready to go ahead with the proposal.
The data that will be available online will not include items such as aerial photos, but layers of parcel maps, access point maps and road maps will be available, free of charge, through Landshark.
“It’s kind of the big three that, people who care about Morrison County data, it’s the ones they want,” Bolton said. “Primarily it will be utility companies or analytics-type companies that are looking for real estate investment opportunities, things like that.”
He said that through the system, they will be able to quickly run a dataset with criteria such as parcels of land of a certain number of acres.
In 2015, he said about 18% of counties in Minnesota provide this type of data for free. It’s up to around 61%, today, and Bolton said he’s just going to go up from there.
Part of the reason, he said, was that in the early 2000s counties were still developing the aforementioned layers in their GIS software. It’s heavily developed now, and they’ve entered a “maintenance phase”.
So while they were still developing the diapers, the counties were trying to recoup the associated costs through their rate schedules. Now that these are complete and just undergoing maintenance, he said it doesn’t make much sense to charge relatively high costs for this data.
“The state of Wisconsin is completely free, and there are other states following this trend,” Bolton said. “I’m not necessarily a pioneer in trying to bring this to you, but it’s definitely been the trend for several years now.”
Kowalzek added that this is a function that Bureau of Land Services employees have been asked to consider on several occasions. Morrison County is, essentially, the only county in central Minnesota that still bills.
“What we’re looking at is really having a standard package layer offered at no cost,” Kowalzek said. “If someone wants to personalize it, though, almost like a data request, ‘That’s what we maintain and you’re welcome there at no charge, but if you need anything else – you need it. customize in some way – we will charge our fee to prepare this for you.”
Bolton added that the costs don’t “really make a lot of money” for the county. Since 2017, he said they haven’t made more than $4,000 in a single year from data requests.
Kowalzek said opening the information for download would reduce staff time. She said right now they have to process every data request and literally hand deliver it to the person who requested the information.
“Enlighten me, if you will, just a little bit,” Commissioner Jeffrey Jelinski said. “It took money to create what we have. Whether it’s subsidies or levies to create what we have is created. Now we charge those same people who paid to use it? »
Kowalzek said that was essentially the case. Most of the people asking for the information are in the business sector, but the money that paid for this infrastructure to be operational is no longer needed.
“You say $4,000, but maintenance, will there be a cost?” asked commissioner Randy Winscher. “Where would it go? Would it be up to the county? You say there are very few people downloading this; but $4,000 is $4,000.
Kowalzek said she thinks more people would use the program if it was available for free. Right now, she said, there are other online sources where people can find the information, although it wouldn’t come directly from the county.
The second part of the equation, she said, was a dual project between the land services office and the registrar’s office. This is for data available for free, rather than map layers, through the county’s Beacon site.
Bolton said when the county first implemented Beacon and Landshark, they were “married together.” Once someone subscribed to Landshark through the registrar’s desktop – for a monthly or annual fee – they would also be automatically subscribed to Beacon. This gave them access to more tools and data.
In recent years, he said Beacon released software that was no longer as compatible with Landshark. This caused grief at the Land Services office for staff members trying to help users who were having trouble logging in to get certain information.
“The marriage between Landshark and Beacon – these two different software applications – worked very well for over 10 years, almost 15 years,” Bolton said. “It’s pretty amazing in the software world, it can even happen.”
Their proposal, Bolton said, was to separate Landshark and Beacon. This will require users to have two different subscriptions, if they want to access both map layers on Landshark and raw data on Beacon.
Kowalzek said that on the Beacon side, they offer users the ability to register for an online account. This would allow any time of day access, and they could pay any associated fees for non-open source data by credit card through the website. He would no longer need the help of the Bureau of Land Services.
Subscriptions are available for a day, a month or a year.
“What they’re getting for that is access to – what these people are primarily looking for is access to our assessment data; terrain maps, land distributions, all of that,” Kowalzek said.
Bolton said this structure is typical of most counties in the state. Kowalzek added that the releases would be consistent with “similarly located counties” in terms of parcels and activity.
The added cost of going this route would be entering into a credit card processing agreement and annual maintenance fees.
“However, the projected revenue should offset the costs we would incur for this,” Kowalzek said.
Commissioner Mike Wilson asked, as a member of the general public, if he wanted to search for his own property on Beacon, if he could do so free of charge. Bolton said it would have the limited visualization capabilities that come with the open source portion of the data.
“You should be able to see the owner, the address, the legal search; the things you would see on a tax return, basically,” Bolton said. “What you won’t be able to see is the breakdown that assessors put into their CAM system, land breakdown, building information, things like that.”
Kowalzek said that as a landowner, information about your own land is already available free of charge upon request from the land services office.
“More often than not what we get are appraisers asking for it on other properties,” she said. “Then we charge for that data.”