Tompkins County GIS: Developing Data for Safer Communities

Accurate, detailed map information is a critical component for public safety agencies and dispatch centers. The difference between a correct map and one with even a few errors can mean life or death for someone calling for urgent medical help. If a responder can’t find the location quickly, he or she may be too late to save someone in need.

This is one of the reasons Cattyann Campbell, GIS Project Leader of the Tompkins County Information Technology Services’ GIS Division, is so dedicated to her job.

“If you are a GIS person, public safety data is one of the best applications you can work on,” said Campbell. “It is rewarding to know that you can help save someone’s life.”

In an effort to help her agency respond faster to emergencies, Campbell has been participating in New York’s Street Address Mapping (SAM) project. This project is designed to improve the accuracy of address mapping throughout the state and bring state data into compliance with standards set by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).

As part of the SAM project, Campbell has been optimizing agency maps for next generation 9-1-1, or NG9-1-1. A database optimized for NG9-1-1 enables an agency to see where calls are coming from, known as reverse geocoding. This can help emergency responders find the exact location of calls for help. But, as Campbell learned, having accurate maps requires clear data entry standards.

“One of the things we wanted to do was clean our data,” said Campbell. “But [the GIS Division] started discovering some stuff in CAD, like street names being inconsistent. We found misspellings, bad road ranges, and mixing different addresses on the same side of the street. Different municipalities used the same street names and their data was inconsistent.”

The opportunity to standardize data entry and fix these problems was right in front of them, but it led them to consider how other counties were addressing the same problems. It soon became clear that the neighboring counties in New York had to work together to develop some best practices. This was especially important because responders from Tompkins County were often dispatched across county lines. Incompatible data would only serve to confuse things—and even worse, threaten lives.

The discussion at the county level also got the counties to consider taking the data even further, advocating for a deeper well of information to help emergency responders in their jobs. One example is offering 3-D, floor plan-style address point placement) with orthophotographic, and bird’s-eye images on maps to help responders get to the correct apartment more easily.


An image New York state is using to discuss the idea of floorplan-style point placement to provide responders with bird’s-eye images of locations. For example, in the photo above, the points would appear stacked, indicating the location of apartments on each floor.

New York’s SAM program has distinguished the state as a leader in developing GIS data. Tompkins County and the neighboring counties are on their way to developing a clean and reliable database of address information that is NG9-1-1 compliant. Although creating an accurate and detailed library of GIS info is an ongoing process, Campbell believes that it will help public safety personnel respond to emergencies more efficiently.

Campbell says that she hopes that people reading this might get other agencies enthusiastic about having their jurisdiction’s data clean and conforming to NG9-1-1 standards.

“I hope it gets some other states thinking about some of these issues,” Campbell said.