Online tool Map Genius getting rave reviews
Published: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 at 7:04 p.m.
When broker Beau Beery was introduced to Alachua County's Map Genius application, he knew it was a game-changer for local real-estate professionals.
“I may be wrong in this, but I believe it is probably the most revolutionary tool that I have used in Gainesville,” said Beery, owner of and broker for Coldwell Banker Commercial M.M. Parrish Realtors.
Using Map Genius, he can search for a particular property and discover a spread of information about the site, including its zoning specifics, school and political districts, and whether it's located on or near wetlands. It will tell him if a home is in a flood zone and what its irrigation restrictions are, in addition to U.S. Census data about the area.
Before Jimmy Collins, a GIS systems analyst with Alachua County, developed this online tool, Beery and his coworkers would have to visit around a dozen websites to get that breadth of data. Now, they can get it from a single source.
When Collins presented Map Genius to Beery and some other members of the Gainesville/Alachua County Association of Realtors, jaws dropped. He got a standing ovation.
“He is just a hero in our office,” Beery said of Collins. “I mean, it's just unbelievable what he has put in on one site.”
Collins began designing Map Genius as a replacement for an interactive mapping tool that the county had used for years to look at land parcels and their zoning data. He mined similar programs from other counties for ideas and knew he wanted to include a wide array of information that Alachua County's previous software didn't have.
“Before, you had to go all these different places to get all this stuff,” he said.
He wanted it to be an easy-to-use, one-stop shop for property information everyone could use. Building the application, which is available at http://mapgenius.alachuacounty.us, took more than eight months.
“I mean, it looks simple, but to make it simple took a lot of work,” Collins said.
Collins, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy 40 years ago at the age of 6, uses an onscreen keyboard by clicking individual letters with a mouse because he can't use an actual keyboard. This may make developing Map Genius seem even more time-consuming, but he said it wasn't much slower than using a real keyboard, especially since a lot of the work involved copying and pasting the same lines of code.
Twenty years ago, Collins took his first post-collegiate job with Alachua County as its media service coordinator and has been there ever since. He studied computer graphics and animation in college, although he is quick to point out this was in the pre-Toy Story era.
“It was very crude, what we were doing,” he said, compared to what is possible today. “Even back then, it was hard to find a job in that area …”
Back then, Collins could still walk and was able to draw. But computer animation was always his main domain and was something he could do even as he lost function in his arms.
The kind of muscular dystrophy Collins has progresses more slowly than other forms, although it is a highly individual disease. Some people with his diagnosis might still be walking, while others could be worse off than he is.
Although he hasn't built a career around art or computer animation, he has found ways to use his artistic skills in the office over the years. He transitioned to working in GIS, or geographic information systems, at the county and began making maps, which gave him a chance to flex his creative side, although he has recently shifted toward computer programming.
For now, Collins' primary focus is Map Genius. A few people have asked him if he and the county are going to try to sell it or promote it to other governments or potential users, but he said they're waiting to see if anyone approaches them about it.
The program has been online for four or five months while he has tweaked it, but the county officially announced its launch in a news release last week.
County Manager Betty Baker told The Sun she's pleased to know the county has the caliber of talent in people like Collins to create innovative tools like this in-house.
Collins will continue to make minor alterations to fix things people have trouble with, but he also plans to add new information over time.
“That was the idea: To make it so you can keep adding and adding without making it too complicated,” he said.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.