With the clock ticking on the setting up of computer systems for the Auckland Super City, there are signs of nervousness about meeting the November 1 deadline.

Lack of consultation and urgency are among the complaints being heard as the Auckland Transition Agency (ATA) tries to mould the region's eight council IT departments, and their scores of systems, into a single entity.

Successfully doing so will not only help the Auckland Council get its rates bills out but has also been highlighted as a key cost-saver. Time - and perhaps an unplanned rates holiday - will tell if the council has its systems working by the deadline.

In the meantime, all those rushing to beat the clock might take heart from an unsung collaborative computing effort, involving the same eight councils, that went live last year.

The project was to create an internet-based application for viewing geospatial data about every parcel of land in the region. It was led by the Auckland Regional Council with the guidance of geographic information system (GIS) specialists from the region's councils.

The result is a tool that, even in its early development, already has a growing community of commercial users and is also of value for ratepayers - at this stage maybe just in terms of satisfying nosiness about the official valuation of the big new house across the street. For both groups, the tool's usefulness will increase as additional information is built into it.

The project is also significant for reasons other than the sheer utility of what it has produced. It's an example of the saying that many hands make light work, and one that other parts of the country - and the world - are paying attention to.

The work was done under the auspices of ALGGi, or Auckland Local Government Geospatial information (ALGGi), a group of GIS practitioners whose shared services initiative had the blessing of the region's Chief Executive Forum.

ALGGi's first accomplishment was to save member councils $1 million in aerial photography costs by having the region shot once, and sharing the images, instead of paying to have it done eight times, so it's easy to see why the chief executives would approve.

"We realised there were huge benefits in working together as a group on GIS issues," says ALGGi chairman Neville Perrie, GIS manager at Rodney District Council.

ALGGi soon extended itself beyond shared purchasing arrangements to coming up with a GIS strategy for the region, out of which the geospatial application was created by the ARC.

ARC information chief John Holley says the regional council was prepared to carry the hundreds of thousands of dollars development cost because the application was seen as serving council needs while also being useful for the wider public. Happily, that's the way it is panning out.

As development team members Fraser Hand and Josh Norton explain it, they have built a framework for viewing geospatial data from a wide range of sources relating to different areas.

Flexibility is the key. Using the same basic application, three viewer versions have been built: the ARC's Auckland Region Viewer; an ALGGi version; and a Rodney District version launched last week.

When a Rodney ratepayer or commercial user searches for an address, the viewer brings up a map showing the property, on which can be overlaid the rates, underground services and council boundaries.

Perrie says he would have liked to add the ability to see resource or building consents being sought or granted for neighbouring properties. "But events have overtaken us with the formation of the Auckland Council and I don't know that we would put in the effort to develop that kind of application on our site knowing it's all going to change."

Anything bylaw-related - dog exercise and liquor bans areas, for example - are the kinds of information Perrie thinks would be useful additions.

Holley goes further, suggesting anything that would be disclosed under a Local Government Information and Meetings Act request should be viewable online.

Andy Haigh, GIS manager at engineering consultancy Beca, says the company's staff make valuable use of the ALGGi viewer, for such tasks as preliminary site investigations. It pays a fee that goes towards database maintenance costs.

Holley is pleased to have the project endorsed. "This is an example of a collaborative effort across the region before there was even an inkling of the Super City," he says. If the ATA gets its act together in time, projects like it might even become routine.

* Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland technology journalist