Bookmark and Share Email this page Email Print this page Print Feed Feed

GIS in Hawaii

A digital version of the state

(page 1 of 3)

For large landowners, like Kamehameha Schools,
geographic information systems are a way to link
the paper past with the digital present and future.  

“Past is prologue.”      
– William Shakespeare

Darrell Hamamura punches his code into a keypad, pulls open the door to the vault and steps back into the past.

As the land information systems manager for Kamehameha Schools, he tracks the endowment’s vast real estate holdings, more than 365,000 acres of industrial land, retail property, farmland and extensive conservation lands. In the past, that meant poring over some of the thousands of historic documents stored in cabinets along both sides of the vault: titles, deeds and easements; leases and permits; maps and surveys; old photographs and correspondence – the oldest dating back more than 100 years.

Nowadays, Hamamura spends less time in the vault. His work, and the work of many other land planners, developers, architects and others in Hawaii, has become more dependent on a technology called geographic information systems, or GIS. Traditionally, if you wanted to know who owned neighboring parcels, the exact location of underground utilities, or the boundaries of zoning districts, it meant finding the information on a paper map or document in the Kamehameha Schools vault, at the Bureau of Conveyances or in a similar storage room. It was a slow, laborious process. Now, almost all these documents are available from a computer. Not only that, they can be combined with some of the thousands of publicly available maps and databases to help answer complex questions: Is this building in the flood plane? How many people of Hawaiian ancestry live within a 15-minute drive? How much acreage was burned in a recent wildfire? GIS makes all that possible.

It’s not just that GIS speeds up the work of planners, engineers and architects, although it certainly does that. And it’s not simply having more information available, although GIS does that, too. It’s that GIS provides users with a deeper, more intuitive insight into the world around them. To borrow a phrase from the industry, GIS helps decision makers make better decisions.

The vault at the Kamehameha Schools’ land information
management and services division bristles with old maps,
titles and deeds, and even royal patents signed by King
Kalakaua. Most of it is now available on KS’s GIS program.


“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”                                               
– Arthur   C. Clark


GIS systems are a way to store, manipulate and display geospatial information on a computer. That sounds arcane, but if you’ve ever used a service like Google Maps, you’ve worked with a simple GIS. More complicated systems, like ESRI’s ArcDesktop and ArcServer programs, which are used by KSBE, include more data and more sophisticated analytical tools. (Several companies produce GIS software, but the industry is dominated by ESRI.) Indeed, “geospatial information” really just means any data that can be tied to a particular location on a map. This includes obvious things, like addresses and regions, but it also means anything related to that address or region: demographics of the residents, types of land use, elevation, vegetation and much more. In fact, almost all data has some geographic component.

Typically, GIS data is grouped in “layers,” maps of related information that can be laid on top of one another so the user can visualize the relationship between different datasets. This is the real power of GIS. Maps are a powerfully intuitive way to explain and analyze information. Perhaps the best and most useful local example is the City and County of Honolulu’s GIS service at, which is hosted on the web by the Honolulu Board of Realtors.

Among municipalities, Honolulu is actually in the vanguard of this new technology and much of the credit goes to Ken Schmidt, GIS coordinator for Honolulu’s Department of Planning. For his part, Schmidt attributes the quality of the city’s program to decisions made by his predecessors.


“Honolulu is really one of the earliest adopters of GIS technology at a local-government level,” he says, “especially for a municipality of this size. When you purchase ESRI’s ArcGIS software product, you get assigned a customer number. Honolulu is customer No. 279. Now they’re up to five or six digits in terms of customer numbers.”

Schmidt also credits the city’s decision in 1996 to integrate all departments. “They recognized the importance of having it as an enterprise system. It wasn’t being developed for one particular program or department; it was intended to support all the different services that the city government provides. That was pretty cutting edge back then.” It also ended up saving money and eliminating duplicated efforts.

Like most municipal GIS systems, Honolulu’s is largely about land use. “For a lot of what we put out,” Schmidt says, “our primary focus was parcel and zoning information, along with other base-map information. Common base-map information includes streets, parcels, building outlines, topography and anything that may have a regulatory influence on a particular property, such as flood zones and zoning designations like special management areas.” All these databases are available directly from the county’s TMK maps. It’s also possible to link to outside sources, like Bing Maps or Google Street View.

With so many flashy programs on the Internet, it’s easy to underestimate an information-rich resource like “The big difference between Bing Maps or Google and what the city is producing is the data,” says John Higuchi, program manager for BEI Consulting, which developed Honolulu’s system. The advanced map on has more than 70 map layers. “The city is the holder of the data. They know where the manholes are; they have the data behind all the parcels and properties; they know the permit information; they know the utilities that are underground. All that information is given to them. Bing and Google don’t have that information, so they’re more directional – how do I get from one address to another.”

Hawaii Business magazine invites you to comment on our articles and the issues they raise. Comments are moderated for offensive language, commercial messages and off-topic posts and may be deleted. Some comments may be chosen for inclusion in the magazine on the Feedback page.

Add your comment:


Don't Miss an Issue!
Hawaii Business,December