IF A PICTURE IS WORTH A thousand words, then a digital map containing detailed data about numerous plots of land is better than a speech team on steroids. Digital maps “have an instant impact,” says David Greminger, project manager for the Orange County division of Fieldstone Communities. The company has been speeding up its property evaluation work using a new generation of mapping products from Digital Map Products, or DMP, which is based in Contra Costa, Calif. “We've been using it now for six months,” says Greminger. “We're just at the beginning stages of what it's going to do for us.”

Information is the lifeblood of business, and information about developable parcels of land is integral to the home building business. But the information needed is typically stored in many places—in many formats—and is frequently sold at different prices. There are companies that sell aerial photographs. There are government agencies that (separately) provide transportation, population, geological, and other data. Real estate databases hold pricing information. And zoning commissions offer maps of future development plans. But DMP makes a business of combining all the information in one place. A builder needs only one software application to access the information needed, just by clicking on it. The efficiencies are clear.

NEW VIEW: Fieldstone's partnership with Digital Map Products allows a bird's-eye view of detailed activity on a site. Until recently, Fieldstone's Greminger—who handles everything from land acquisitions to entitlements to design and engineering—displayed all the information he could during internal presentations the traditional way. “We had a few maps, a book, and a Thomas guide, and we'd photocopy from one and paste it all [on a poster board] to tell the story we wanted to tell,” he recalls. Now, when looking at different possible land acquisitions, the process is different. “Now we can zoom in, add points of interest, add text,” he explains. “We can draw a circle around an area, query the database, and display actively selling communities and their prices by zip code or street address.” In addition to saving time and money in photocopying and print-out costs, Greminger says, “The presentations are cleaner and faster.” Ultimately, communication is definitely improved, he concludes.

The digital map can link to any kind of database—in a variety of formats—and access different data. Perhaps best of all, the map, like any digital “document,” can be e-mailed, stored, and edited by several people who have editing privileges on the document. If, for example, resale and traffic patterns are superimposed on a map, that particular version of the display can be saved and stored. Later, it can be retrieved, edited, and printed out. There are so many ways to organize the data, notes Greminger, and a digital map allows the company to store it in as many ways as there are users.

Home Builder Focus Steven Stautzenbach, vice president of sales and marketing of six-year-old DMP, has only recently expanded his company's outreach to home builders. The application software company targeted government agencies and utilities, which still comprise 90 percent of its customers. “All of our clients subscribe and get everything from the Web,” says Stautzenbach. Among his recent projects is helping Los Angeles attempt to find developable sites for 200 new schools.

GET CONNECTED: DMP's online maps make it easy to share information across many desktops. But last year, DMP started to attract interest from home builders. As there are no plug-ins and nothing to download, the Web-accessible data is easy for non-technical users, notes Stautzenbach. As builders deal with planning departments and municipal bodies, DMP makes it easy to share the same information across many desktops, including marking up maps and sending them back, easing the multi-layered approval process.

Fieldstone was introduced to DMP by Eagle Aerial, a provider of aerial photographs—and a company that both Fieldstone and DMP used. Greminger recalls that the builder was doing a lot of research at that time in the various companies that were trying to aggregate databases, photographs, and other land-focused information.

“There are a lot of people doing the different pieces, and there are a few of them that are putting the pieces together,” Stautzenbach recalls. “A few of those have aerial photography tied to a GIS [Geographic Information Systems] database, and eventually everyone will have the MLS [Multiple Listing Service] and other data sources,” he says. Several companies offered everything from the bird's-eye view down to the street names. But the real question, says Stautzenbach, was, “Who could put that all that together in one package and make it work?”

Greminger and the Fieldstone team decided on DMP and paid about $50,000 for data sources to serve its California operations. One of the attractive areas of DMP's pricing is that if a builder already has a licensing agreement with a data source, then DMP does not charge for accessing that database. “You don't have to pay twice to access the same data,” says Greminger.

The difference in vision was striking, he says. He usually drives around to look at land and take photographs. Using DMP in the office “is almost as if you're flying around in an airplane, looking for vacant parcels, clicking on each parcel to find out how large it is, the zoning of it, and from the seat of your desk you can look at the overall market,” he says. He appreciates not only the speed with which he can access the data, but the breadth of vision it provides. “I can spot things that might not have been on my radar screen,” he says.

Mapping Ahead As with any technology, DMP's system could be improved. Some of the data sources are incomplete or inaccurate, says Greminger, adding that it's not DMP's fault, but the fault of the integrity of the database itself. Most critically, perhaps, the database still doesn't link to the MLS data, a steady source of active real estate activity. “It would be advantageous to do that, and they're working on it,” says Greminger.

The possibilities “are somewhat endless,” says Greminger, as DMP continues to integrate with other data sources. “There is a lot of work now on consumer preferences,” he notes. “Can we tie psychographic consumer preferences to this?” Then, digging deeper in a geographic area could include deeper information about the people.

Greminger is excited about other possibilities for the software. “There are some tools out there that build topography onto [their display] so you can take a three-dimensional view. This one is only two-dimensional,” he notes. If Greminger's three-man team had wireless computers in their cars, he dreams, “we could pull up a parcel, phone up the system, and find out about it right away, or find out the underlying data about everything in a one-mile radius. The software can do that, but we don't have the hardware for that.”

What DMP's system has done in the short term is spur technology purchases at Fieldstone: Greminger says the company has decided to invest in larger printers.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.