No more waiting: Local company bringing county records to Internet
By Reuben Wadsworth
Surveyor Ben Johnston of Johnston Engineering in Tremonton has commuted to Brigham City as many as five times a week to view Box Elder County records.
Besides the drive time both ways, he has to wait in line to search through county files, which many times can be a long, arduous process.
Fortunately for Johnston, soon he may be able to view those records from his home computer.
InGeo Systems, a company based in North Logan, has come up with a system that publishes county data right over the Internet on a site called Landlight.com. Only Cache County data is available on the database, but the company hopes to add Box Elder to the mix soon.
Johnston said driving to the county offices is sometimes essential, but it will be wonderful to access records in five seconds when it usually takes hours.
"The money he'd save in gas is astonishing," InGeo intern, Jer Camarata said of Johnston's commute.
Todd Hougaard started InGeo Systems three and a half years ago with the vision that he would develop local government applications of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), but he has since augmented his efforts by producing Web sites like Landlight.com.
"We couldn't do the GIS and the other systems with a degree of quality like we felt we needed if we were spread across too many industries," Hougaard said. "We needed to be focused and so we pursued those items that we felt we had the best strengths in."
InGeo Systems is distinctly the name of the company and Landlight.com is the Web service the company offers, Hougaard said. Most people who use Landlight.com don't even know that InGeo Systems is the provider of the site.
"We are trying to build the brands separately," he said.
Landlight.com allows multiple users in a single organization to access county data simultaneously, unlike some systems that only allow a single user to dial directly into the county's computer, Camarata said.
That's what made a believer out of Jim Hickman of Hickman Land Title Company. He has followed the implementation of the Landlight.com by the county since the beginning. Before Landlight.com, Hickman or his employees had to dial up the county on a single computer, paying a minimal monthly fee. InGeo's product changed all that by engineering the Internet site.
Hickman said the county and InGeo agreed to a three-month trial period to test the site. That period expired at the end of February.
Lynn Lemon, Cache County executive, said the trial period will be extended until an agreement is in place. InGeo and county executives will discuss such a proposal and make a report on how the system is working.
"Cache County has spent zero dollars on Landlight.com," Hougaard said. "They contracted with us to build their internal county operations. It was to update their old DOS system to a modern client/server system. We have paid the entire cost for developing Landlight.com."
Hougaard said he is sure other companies are trying to do the same thing as InGeo. Others are developing Web access on top of older systems, whereas his company actually helps the county upgrade to new technology, he said.
The county deserves a lot of credit in the whole process of developing Internet capabilities, Hougaard said. The county has been visionary because of the way it set up access between private business as a pay-as-you-go process, while not costing the county anything.
But Hickman said Landlight.com has become a monopoly. He believes "control issues" should be considered to decide who sets the price of the service, yet right now he thinks InGeo is offering a fair price. Hickman has been impressed with InGeo's willingness to continually upgrade its product, he said. He thinks the system is progressive and he wouldn't object if it was implemented for good.
Before Landlight.com, accessing county data was just like dealing with card catalogs at the library, Camarata said. The new system takes a lot of traffic away from the county records, he added.
Cache County has a server at the county courthouse that distributes county records. The county does not have a direct Web site where such information can be transmitted. Through Landlight.com, InGeo provides customers with the service of viewing and searching the data directly from their office or home.
"We don't own the data," said Hougaard. "That's a critical component. It's the county's data. We are simply the service providers. We provide access to the data."
Cache County has a record of all the land transactions that go on within county boundaries. The county keeps maps and computerized databases with details that describe each property so the properties can be appraised and value estimated. The real estate industry, mortgage companies and title companies all require that kind of information. They want to know who owns the piece of property and if taxes have been paid.
Any user can find out information on their own property, but they must know something that uniquely identifies them. It's a matter of protecting privacy, Hougaard said.
"The only people with the ability to browse the complete records are subscribers - the professional users, and they need access to the information to do their jobs," Hougaard said. "The complete records are not available to the general public via the Web site. The primary reasons they are not are privacy and personal security of citizens such as law enforcement, judges and other elected officials. The complete information can be accessed at the county since the records are public records."
When visiting the Web site, a user logs on with their user name and password, then has to choose a search method: by address, owner, official records, brief legals or map index. After the search is done, users may decide which record they would like to view and may access as many records as they want, for a small fee - generally 10 cents a hit.
What most users look for when they access the information is the property profile, Camarata said. The profile includes the name and address of the owner, property address, size of parcel, market and taxable values, square footage of each building, the year the building was built, the type of building, how much will have to be paid in taxes and a legal description of the property.
"Every transaction that they (county officials) change on their database is replicated to our copy of the database," Hougaard said.
The county can update the site at will. This means information is up-to-the-minute accurate, Hougaard said.
"It's a way for the county to actually provide an increased level of service," he said.
Most users of the Web site are professionals - mortgage and title companies, etc., said Hougaard.
"The average citizen would only rarely want to go look up information at the county," he said. "The most common request they might have is if their mortgage company had paid their property taxes."
"The vast majority of requests for data and access to county records come from a small percentage of the population served," Hougaard said. For example, Cache County has a population approaching 100,000 and fewer than 50 people are regularly accessing county records.
InGeo Product Manager Jason Lambert said that as a whole, customers are thrilled about the Internet capabilities provided by the company. Images of official records are also available on the site and the company is working on a variety of maps to place on the site, he said, including hazards, zoning and flood data. Lambert feels this will appeal to a wide variety of users.
Katie Levanger, prospect researcher for the development office at Utah State University, uses Landlight.com for an entirely different reason. She compiles lists of profiles of potential donors to the university.
Since property values are an indication of wealth, the information provided by Landlight.com is an important part of her work.
"I am pleased with the site because it is extremely user-friendly," she said. "The information is easily accessed and is provided in an easy-to-read format. My only gripe is that this information used to be free and now I have to pay to get it."
Camarata and InGeo want their site to be even more user-friendly so they have recently conducted market research in order to find out what customers would like to see improved in Landlight.com.
Camarata said customers wanted InGeo to implement more specific searches and the capability to do reports, such as all the parcels that have back taxes, etc., so real estate personnel or appraisers can find out if a property can legally be sold.
Such improvements may include a search for specific amenities such as finding all golf course frontage lots and also advanced searches using criteria specific to residential, commercial and vacant land properties, Camarata said.
If Hougaard gets his wish, physical county records, the hordes of files and papers at the courthouse, might become obsolete and everything could become paperless.
If that happens, Johnston may breathe a sigh of relief. He'll be able to devote more time to surveying and not to driving and waiting in line.