Out with Paper

Landonline screenshot, electronic title records with survey-accurate data

We all heard for years how the computer age was going to create a paperless society. This drew chuckles as we've seen just the opposite happen in many cases, with printers spitting out reams of paper data. But in New Zealand, a new land information system has come to fruition that actually does reduce paperwork significantly.

Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) gives surveyors, conveyancers, and territorial (local government) authorities across New Zealand secure access to the nation's digital cadastre and land titles through an online system called Landonline. This provides electronic access to titles, title instruments, plans, parcels, and geodetic survey marks dating back more than 150 years. It also means quicker, smarter, and more integrated lodging of and access to new land information data.

LINZ began this effort aiming to create a secure core national land information system. The benefits included streamlining LINZ's own business functions as well providing key users with online access to cadastral and land title data.

Supported by the New Zealand Institute of Surveyors and New Zealand Law Society, LINZ first began investigating options for making the title and survey lodgement process more efficient in 1996 and went live with the first stage of the Landonline system in 2002. At the time, it was the largest information technology project in the country and included the conversion of more than seven million physical records into digital data. For two years, a warehouse was converted to a full-time capture "factory" for hundreds of technicians who converted survey and title records to digital files.

In parallel with the capture of title data, survey data defining land parcels was also captured. This proved a complex exercise as it involved spatial data, survey observations, and textual attributes of land parcels. The spatial definition of the land parcels was refined from previous digitized coordinates using the captured observations. The survey data was captured and validated in blocks of parcels using custom-built software. The blocks were integrated into the national data set in Landonline as they were completed.

After looking at available database options, LINZ chose the Informix Dynamic Server (IDS) as the database at the heart of the new system. Along with IDS, they also adopted the Spatial Datablade, modular technology developed jointly by Informix and ESRI to manage spatial data directly within the database. "IDS was selected due to its spatial and extensibility capabilities," says Tony Lester, LINZ's CIO. "We continue to use this technology, which has evolved into IBM's Informix Dynamic Server and ESRI Spatial Database Engine technology."

Two-Stage Operation

LINZ designed Landonline to be completed in two stages. Stage one consisted of the electronic conversion of records and the creation of the survey and titles registration system. This enabled all new survey plans and title instruments to be received in paper format, scanned as images, and then processed in Landonline by LINZ staff. It also enabled remote searching of land titles using a new service called e-search.

Stage two saw the introduction of e-survey and e-dealing services, allowing for online lodgement and certification of survey plans and title instruments by surveyors and solicitors. Landonline was one of the first systems in the world to combine electronic title records with survey-accurate digital data.

Landonline e-survey significantly changed survey plan presentations in New Zealand. Instead of basing surveys on graphics, they base them on the combination of new survey data and underlying cadastral survey data. This allows e-survey to pre-validate and incorporate new data directly into an integrated nationwide dataset instead of creating only individual static visual representations. Now, plan images created using Landonline are accurate graphics of the underlying authoritative digital data from the Landonline database.

Landonline contains a vast array of digital survey information from many sources. In practice, this means that once a surveyor completes a field survey and makes the necessary computations, he or she creates a dataset and submits this data to Landonline as an e-survey. This is done using a standards-based data format specifically for survey data, LandXML.

The new e-survey is created in the context of the existing digital cadastral framework. The surveyor can easily adopt existing observations to the new dataset, and when it is submitted, Landonline can test its consistency with the existing information. Once the survey data has been captured, the surveyor identifies the new parcels to be created and the existing parcels affected by the survey. Easements and other spatially defined areas can also be captured. Surveyors can pre-validate their new e-surveys using the same automated LINZ business rules used by LINZ staff to identify inconsistencies. This enables the entire process to run as smoothly as possible.

Landonline's screens and help functions are designed specifically to meet the needs of registered users. Built-in system wizards, online help, website-sourced quick reference cards, and user guides help Landonline users with the system. Self-help training tools for components of the system are also available from the website.

The ESRI component technology allowed LINZ to fully customize the enduser applications needed to work with both the descriptive and spatial components of the Landonline system. The user interface was built in PowerBuilder, with much of the business logic built into IDS procedures and datablade functions (custom database extension modules). Spatial data is "visualized" using components based on ESRI MapObjects. Some internal users use ESRI ArcInfo for specialist functions such as electoral boundary changes. The application is delivered to approximately 12,000 external users via a thin client delivery model based around a large Citrix server farm of approximately 50 servers.

Using ESRI GIS technology with IBM IDS, users can extract many types of spatial data, including:

  • Observations captured during survey conversion
  • Observations from new surveys
  • Geodetic marks including coordinates
  • Cadastral marks including coordinates
  • Parcels and their attributes

Extracts are made by selecting an area of interest or by using an individual survey reference.

Surveyors testing the system asked for Landonline to include the ability for territorial authorities to certify e-surveys online. TA e-certification is the Landonline certification option that enables users in TAs to choose to certify either on paper or electronically by looking at digital datasets. It has been designed to remove most of the manual workload for TAs, saving them time and money.

Surveyors digitally certify e-surveys as correct and lodge with LINZ for approval. After accessing Landonline and the pre-prepared TA certificates, TAs then edit the certificates as required before certifying and signing them online. The e-certification is attached to each survey dataset online as an imaged document.

Users of the Landonline system must have a license, and interested firms apply for a license and provide the names of their users. Firms determine the level of access for each of their staff and can control specific privileges. Each staff member who uses Landonline has an individual digital certificate to ensure the authenticity of users and to maintain the security and integrity of the titles register and national cadastre.

LINZ's technical and access security layers guard against threats to the integrity of the titles register and digital cadastre. Landonline's system design and technical security ensures that LINZ securely backs up all survey and title records on a regular basis. This reduces risk to the titles register and digital cadastre.

Built-in functions, such as pre-validation of e-surveys and automated business rules used for e-dealing transactions, have resulted in more accurate records being submitted and held in Landonline. All users benefit from the system's automated checks that reduce the risk of delays caused by the need to resubmit. Firms using the system are presented with opportunities to review and improve their own workflows, enabling them to use their resources in more profitable parts of their business.

All Electronic Now

Today, the New Zealand datasets, both survey and land titles, are available digitally. Since 2005, land titles have been issued using the electronic system, and paper (duplicate) titles have become obsolete. On September 1, 2007, 100 percent of all survey lodgements were required to be electronic, and by the end of 2008, nearly all title transactions will be completely digital. This will stand as a grand achievement since, by then, the system will allow for more than 300 different title transactions types to occur.

The title search component of Landonline, e-search, has seen the biggest rise in user rates of the system. "Everyone underestimated the increase we would see in only searching for titles," says Tony Lester. "Just enabling this ability has created its own small niche market."

Instead of manually searching for title and survey requests by sending faxes or physically visiting a LINZ office, searchers can log on to the system from the comfort of their office. This alone has delivered cost and time savings and improved ease of use. Where before it might have taken several days to complete a transaction, they can now be processed in a matter of minutes.

While Landonline is geared toward professionals tasked with maintaining the cadastre and legal ownership of land (e.g. surveyors and conveyancers), the general public can order copies of titles and survey plans using a separate online ordering system available on the LINZ website.

Today, Landonline processes approximately 900,000 title transactions a year and 15,000 new survey data sets with many benefits for both LINZ and users. Online, real-time access to digital records eliminates time spent waiting for search results, while electronic lodgement and certification means more efficient end results for land professionals and their customers.

"While the learning curve for Landonline was high, our users now relish the access to information and are very happy with the system," says Lester. "Stakeholder representatives have been an integral part of the system development team from the very beginning of this process and will continue to be in the future as we look to stay in step with technology."

"In the end, the New Zealand economy benefits from the certainty and efficiency Landonline provides for real property transactions and development," Lester says. "And that's to the benefit of us all."

About the Author

  • Karen Richardson
    Karen is a writer for ESRI in Redlands, California.

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