WA’s Landgate liberates 150 years of archived land survey information

WA’s Landgate liberates 150 years of archived land survey information

July/August Edition, 2007: Microfiche offers some great archiving qualities but its one major pitfall is access - it’s a horrible format for sharing information. For Landgate – Western Australia’s primary land information agency – the hardware needed to read microfiche was also congesting its Midlands branch. While it knew digitising would be the answer, it wasn’t until new digitising technology arrived in Australia that Landgate could finally harness its potential to lower the cost of conversion.

Western Australia’s primary source of land and property information, Landgate recently commenced a project to digitise its 400,000 microfiche files. It’s just one part of Landgate’s extensive amount of archives, but it contains information that goes back to the agency’s origins in 1829.

Landgate, or rather the Survey Office as it was known in 1829, commenced collecting data on surrounding lands two years after Western Australia was officially named as a state. Back then the prime function was to conduct surveys of the land, which formed the basis of land ownership and usage rights. The information was collected in survey books indicating the surrounding land features and encompassing information on exploration, engineering and other survey activities undertaken.

The agency’s records underpin much of the state’s major sources of revenue from the mining, farming, residential and property development sectors. It also maintains the official registrar of land ownership for Western Australia. Landgate has and continues to play a vital role in addressing the seemingly absurd concept of a land shortage in Western Australia; the demand for land in WA has outstripped the State’s capacity to issue new land packages, causing problems for some land users.

This phenomenon in part explains why Landgate’s prime objective over the next 5 years is to make all its information available online, to provide a system that enables faster processing and better decisions.

But the real reason for the project to convert Landgate’s survey information was to address the demand from its survey customers for better access to information. Peter Ormond, Landgate’s Customer Centre Manager says, “We wanted greater data flexibility for the surveying industry. Making the field books accessible online will also improve the quality of the work they provide because that flexibility means they can search with greater detail and the information they’re updating includes all available information.

“The surveying industry was lagging behind in terms of the online delivery that we provided to the rest of the property market. We wanted to provide better services for the survey industry and to bring this in line with the rest of the property industry.”

Of Landgate’s 4,000 account-holding customers in the legal, financial and industrial sectors, only 200 clients are from the surveying sector. For a project that costs $500,000 it seems like a small group but as Ormond points out, that group represents much more to the state than the sum of its constituents. “Preserving original documents is never going to ‘make money’ per se, but it delivers huge value in how they [clients] develop land,” he says. “Our surveying customers’ work underpins three to four billion dollars in the property market every year because every piece of land needs to be surveyed before being developed or given a title. It’s the foundation of land information and land development.”

With customers needing to visit the Midland Branch and use the self service area in order to obtain survey information, the issue of space was another reason for going ahead with the project. Ormond says a major impetus was to free up space currently taken up by fiche reading machines. “It gave us our valuable foot print in our Midland premises back,” he says. “Once all the field books go online, we can recover the space which is taken by microfiche scanners, readers and printers.”

Digitising fiche with a new work horse: the technology that made the project possible

Digitising equipment is not new technology, so why has it taken so long to commence such a project if, as Ormond said, making the survey information available online had been a ‘priority’ for a long time?

According to Ormond, the key inhibitors were technology and economics. “We’ve always identified that scanning the originals and/or microfiche was an obvious solution to making it available online through our existing portal. But the cost of scanning all the documents was prohibitive; it was in the millions of dollars. The opportunity came in the improvements in equipment used to digitise the microfiche.”

That improvement is the DRS Digitizer, a new microfiche digitisation platform introduced to Australia by Melbourne-based DatacomIT. Prior to its introduction, digitising microfiche required an operator to manually load and unload each individual microfiche for scanning.

DatacomIT's managing director, Don Beggs had the nous to secure exclusive rights to the DRS Digitizer, a two-hundred thousand dollar machine developed in Germany and commercialised in the US. This high end production scanner is able to store up to 200 microfiche at time, and delivers savings by automating the load and unload of microfiche using its patented vacuum process, enabling continued operation with minimal labour.

In the end, it was the critical factor to Landgate’s selection of DatacomIT for the project. To get the project rolling, DatacomIT sent a team over to Western Australia, led by solutions consultant, Richard Wilson. He scoped out the project in the discovery phase of the tender process. The team took copies of master fiche and original documents and returned to Datacom IT’s Melbourne-based headquarters to create proofs and trials, which were then sent back to do Landgate for quality assessments.

Datacom IT burnt digital images to CD, which Landgate then sent out to select surveyors the agency works with to get feedback from the industry, specifically about the flexibility of panning and zooming in on the images. Ormond says, “They don’t have the same ability in the current environment. Their feedback also helped determining the size and resolution of the documents.”

The resolution they’ve chosen means a total projected data storage footprint of 500GB. Compared to its aerial and satellite imagery, says Ormond, the survey information is a smidgen. “If you compare that now to our storage requirements for digital aerial imagery, that’s 19TB with 146TB offline. So, in the scheme of things, with our digital aerial and satellite imagery, this was fairly small.”

Ormond says the project has taken longer than expected to get into full production. This was primarily to make sure the quality controls were up to the standard that DatacomIT wanted. “We’re talking data sets that were completely different to the originals; some were 150 years old and these are still being used,” says Ormond. “Actually that’s one of the things this project isn’t addressing because we’re only doing monochrome. The original [survey books] are basically monochrome but the colours on the Crown Lands documents represent different states and descriptions of the land. Most of those wouldn’t be understood without looking at originals however if you want to check, the originals will still be available.”

The future of land information

When the conversion project is completed, Landgate’s registered customers will be able to view the field books at Landgate’s website www.landgate.wa.gov.au. The portal delivers a vast array of services including access to aerial photography, satellite imagery, reference and boundary maps for land, property and administrative purposes as well as native title, pastoral and historical maps.

Since the project is mid-flight, Ormond expects a few new lessons once it’s done and dusted. In the meantime he says, “Certainly one of the positives from it has been our ability to react to industry wishes. The industry has been calling for this for a long time. We hold regular information evenings for professional development and the discussion of digitising field books has gone on for a number of years.”

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