Anoka County's website attracts twice as many visitors wanting to know who's in jail as it does those interested in vacant jobs.

On an average summer day, more than a third of the visitors to the county's Internet sites are seeking information about parks. And for every four Web visitors seeking property information, there's one who wants to know about the latest foreclosures.

County webmaster Paul Burtness says that the county's Internet site hasn't always been on the cutting edge, but he seems to have his finger on the social-network pulse of exactly what county residents want to know.

He's working on ways of making information more easily accessible to cellphone users, knowing that many county residents seeking information concerning economic assistance don't own laptops, but they do have mobile phones.

And if he senses a need to put information from the county's database on the web, he's not bashful about consulting to get the opinions and input he needs from other county employees.

Thousands of hits daily

Burtness oversees an Internet site that attracts 7,300 visitors to the county's main website, plus an additional 3,500 daily visits to the Internet site for Anoka County parks. He coordinates a social network that many residents deem essential.

Burtness can tell you that on a given day, 600 people will go to the website looking for property information while 150 check the site for foreclosures. Three hundred daily visitors read about vacant jobs, 400 use the county's map system, and 700 look to see who's in jail.

"I like to say that with over 7,000 visitors a day, Paul's running the biggest building in the county," said Martha Weaver, the county's public information manager.

Hooked on computers

Fifty years ago, on more than 300 acres in southeastern Minnesota where cattle and pigs grazed between fields of corn and soybeans, Burtness began cultivating the seeds of his ideas that would one day help shape Anoka County.

"Living on our small farm in Houston County, there were all kinds of things to appreciate," Burtness recalled. "Living on the farm, you're always making things, always trying new things."

Back in his home town of Spring Grove, there was a Control Data plant. Although computers were in their infancy when Burtness was a kid, he was plenty interested. Then he saw one at the county fair.

He was hooked.

"It was one of the neatest things in the world," he remembered.

The middle child of three, Burtness followed his older brother's path to the University of Minnesota. Paul loved math, puzzles and science and had been a first-chair trombone player in the high school band. At the university, he joined the staff of the Minnesota Daily and reaffirmed what he already knew -- that he could write.

He graduated in 1975 -- in less than four years -- and spent the next 20 years as a self-employed consultant.

"In the 1980s, I was probably one of the first freelancers in the Twin Cities to type scripts on a word processor," he said. "I learned early how to get the most out of one of these new machines."

'Wow' moments

In the next 10 years, Burtness graduated from small freelance jobs to working on one of 3M's first websites.

"I can still remember the shock of awareness I saw on one sales rep's face, a regional vice president," he said. "We were trying to explain websites and the Internet to them.

"'You mean I can be sitting in somebody's office in India and show them something on somebody's computer in St. Paul?'" the man asked him. "'That's amazing!'"

Four years later, he went to work for Lutheran Brotherhood before it became Thrivent Financial. In 2001, he left for Anoka County.

At 58, Burtness isn't ready to slow down. He is training to run in his second Twin Cities Marathon this fall and is still searching for ways to make information more accessible to the public.

"I always wanted to do something related to science," he said. "I'm still fascinated by this."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419