Sleetmute? Yakutat? Eek? Ask this Alaska database

State-run Web site offers detailed view of 350 cities, towns, boroughs

Posted: Monday, December 29, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Want to know the latitude of Eek? The history of Sleetmute? The economy of Yakutat? How to pronounce Atmautluak?

If it's a populated place in Alaska, you'll find it in the Alaska Community Database, maintained by an unabashed lover of information, from the macro to the minutiae.

The state-run Web site offers a detailed view of 350 cities, towns, villages and boroughs, profiling communities through more than 400 data fields, including maps and photos, officials, statistics and phone numbers. Since going online a decade ago, the site has evolved into a valuable resource for travelers, students, government workers and information buffs.

"It's one of our first and best-loved products," said Laura Walters, head of the research and analysis section, which maintains the site and other data clearinghouses.

Visitors to the site can discover that Eek's latitude is 60.21889 degrees and that Ingalik Indians founded Sleetmute, which means "wetstone people" for the slate deposits found nearby. They'll learn that Yakutat's economy depends on fishing and that Atmautluak is pronounced aht-MOUTH-luck.

If someone has crunched the numbers or gathered the facts, chances are they're lurking somewhere in the site, according to Walters.

"Our forte is pulling out information that already exists," she said.

Walters, 43, has been involved with the database since the start - actually, before the beginning, when rural communities were profiled on poster-size sheets.

The daughter of an Air Force officer, Walters bounced around a lot in her youth before winding up in Alaska - her 18th move - in 1983. She eventually landed a job with the state, working her way from clerk typist to a novice research analyst in 1990, a job that led to her present position.

At the time, the printed profiles were still being produced, one community at a time. The state published about 200 community profiles between the early 1970s and early 1990s. It was a less-than perfect product, Walters said.

"The genesis of the community database is that the printed profiles weren't working anymore," she said. "They're not easy to fax, you can't e-mail them and the information itself was constantly changing."

But the core information was valuable and would wind up on the Web database, the brainchild of Walters' former boss, Michael Cushing, who retired in July as lead researcher. Cushing said the concept had been brewing a long time, but technology had to catch up before it became a reality in a simpler form in 1994.

"The idea was to provide one-stop shopping for community information," said Cushing, 57, who now lives in Portland, Ore. "It evolved dramatically from paper to klutzy computers to static Web pages to a dynamic Web site. It's amazing to think that just two people - Laura and I - have done this."

Ultimately, the site became Walters' special project. She was responsible for updating existing information and adding more that became available. This year, four staffers began helping Walters maintain that and other data banks.

The U.S. Census is probably the single most important source for updating the community database, Walters said. Other sources are state business licensing records, schools and newspapers. The office also conducts yearly surveys of community officials and major employers.

The reward for Walters is hearing from the public, particularly those with "off-the-wall" questions. Like the man who called from Atlanta, asking who would hire a felon. Or the Southern woman who wanted to move to a place on Alaska's northern coast so desolate it's not even on the database. Or the inmate from an Oregon prison who wrote, saying he wanted to start an RV park in Kenai.

"I was very popular in that correctional facility," Walters said with a laugh. "Someone was passing my name around there, saying I was a great source of information."

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