Computer Maps Give More Than Directions

So-called geographical information systems have become one of the fastest growing computer applications

P> Pictures with power.

That's what computer mapping has been about all along. GIS, or geographical information systems, has been helping planners of all types -- environmental, urban, military -- for about 15 years. But with the dropping cost of computer speed, memory and software, the market has spread rapidly into business applications. And that means business is booming.

GIS is one of the fastest growing computer applications markets, with an 18 percent growth rate and more than $2 billion in sales in 1994.

The concept of melding computers and cartography goes back as long as computers have existed, but it was only around 1980 that computers became powerful enough to store and manipulate the huge amounts of information needed. One of the first successful applications came from the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1981, the Army wrote a program known as GRASS, or Geographic Resources Analysis Support System. The program -- which is available for free -- helped the Army write environmental impact statements; it's still used today. (See related sidebar.)

Computerized maps use three types of data: raster, vector and point. Raster data is stored in pixels, the smallest elements that a computer screen can display. It is from these pixels, literally points of light, that an image is generated. Raster graphics, also known as bit-mapped graphics, are easiest on the eyes, but they are also data-intensive and therefore memory hogs. Satellite photos are stored with raster data.

Vector data is what you think of when you read maps: political borders, streams, roads. Graphics formed from vector data use lines, circles, ellipses and boxes -- the basic elements of Euclidean geometry -- as their building blocks.

Finally, GIS displays use something called point data. Point data is just that -- dots that symbolize sewer plants, houses, utility poles. It's the simplest and least elegant way to represent objects on a map -- and in many cases, perfectly adequate.

These are the basic building blocks of GIS images, and they are combined with various kinds of data to provide analytical tools for city planners, marketers and battlefield commanders. In a computerized map, each level of data is layered, like colored transparencies on an overhead projector. Many kinds of data, in different formats, can populate GIS databases -- sewer lines, location of water mains, roads, census data, crime reports, pothole frequency, traffic records. Just clicking on a house can bring up all sorts of information -- who lives there, how much the owner pays in taxes, what he paid for the house, what kind of heating is used, what his income is. The trick is digitizing all this data and putting it into a format that allows these correlations.

Gilles Cl?ment, CEO of GIS developer Logiciels et Applications Scientifique in Montreal, says companies spend about 80 percent of their money and time digitizing data and adding the geographic markers to databases. This process is known as geocoding.

Larger cities in North America have already been entered into databases, but for others, everything must be done by hand. A mouse must be dragged across every detail on a paper map the cartographer wishes to capture. Scanning is too error-prone to use.

But once the information is there, the capacity for analysis can be powerful. That's what federal agencies and state and local governments have known for years. Environmental Systems Research Institute in Redlands, Calif., and Intergraph Corp. in Huntsville, Ala., have sold much of the government's software. (Though the free GRASS is also quite widespread.)

Cleb Loflin is director for city planning and transportation in Montgomery, Ala. His department has used ESRI's ARC/INFO for six years.

"We're using it for bus routes, building permits, all the census information. We have our highway program on it -- arterials, collaterals, local roads, where flood plains are located, soil conditions, where gas tanks are buried," he said. The surrounding county uses it for all tax records, and the water utility uses it to organize all its pipes and engineering drawings.

He said while Montgomery didn't use some other functions -- traffic patterns, sources of hazardous materials, including the ability to track how wind currents might spread a chemical spill -- all were possible.

With GIS, he can forecast future population, where it will grow and which tracts are most likely to become subdivisions because of their soil characteristics, slope, access to roads, utilities, and police and fire protection. Loflin said, "I can forecast how many trips they'll make, [and know] I have to have three more lanes or whatever."

But the first thing he liked about GIS was the ability to create accurate, attractive maps for public presentations.

Loflin actually never touches the UNIX-based ARC/INFO, which runs on a Sun Sparc 20. He runs ArcView on a Pentium PC, which uses the maps that ARC/INFO builds. It's a point-and-click analysis tool. It may not have all the functions of its more powerful predecessor, but the system is getting better.

The city "started with an investment of about $40,000. As the software has gotten more sophisticated, the computers have to be more powerful," he said. They're on their third generation of equipment and software, spending $50,000 to $60,000 each time.

But it's worth the money to avoid doing the same work by hand. In order to do everything GIS does, "I'd probably have to double my staff of eight," Loflin said.

ArcView followed MapInfo Corp.'s lead into desktop mapping. MapInfo of Troy, N.Y., developed point-and-click computerized maps five years ago.

"Traditional GIS is a cartographic science, a fairly technical discipline that is computer-aided design based. We look at traditional GIS as a means to maintain maps," said Randy Drawas, vice president for marketing communications. "We use maps to do analysis."

Like ArcView, MapInfo does not have the power or the capability to do custom functions as some other programs. MapInfo has even released a less sophisticated version called Datamap that's bundled with Excel, which offers just a taste of GIS' capabilities.

And MapInfo has about 25 percent of the traditional market. The Federal Emergency Management Agency officials used a combination of MapInfo and the Global Positioning System -- a constellation of Defense Department satellites that provide position location -- to assess the damage from the forest fires in Southern California and quickly cut checks for destroyed homes.

While high-end GIS is a more mature market, it doesn't stop evolving. Powerful programs can use animation to add the element of time to geography. This could be used to project vegetation renewal, for instance.

Cl?ment's LAS recently released a point-and-click interface for GRASS, which should incorporate 3-D mapping this year. It's bridging the gap between power and ease of use.

"GIS softwares are way too complex. Someone can invest a couple of months to learn ARC/INFO, for instance," Cl?ment said. "ARC/INFO is not much more complex than Excel. It's just that the graphical user interface is not there."

Businesses such as forestry, mining and chemical companies hoping to pre-empt environmental sanctions all benefit from the spread of GIS.

Some 60 percent of LAS' market is new users. "Most of our new customers don't know what GRASS is at all," he said. "We're not selling them technology. We sell it as a solution."

MapInfo dominates the commercial side, which is growing the fastest and is expected to become the largest segment of GIS users.

"I think ESRI made a very big mistake when they underestimated (those users)," Cl?ment said.

Kathy Gambee, director of GIS business development for Arlington, Va.'s Claritas, gave a gentler assessment. Claritas sells marketing data to MapInfo, ESRI and Intergraph. "I see a tremendous effort on the part of ESRI. I think they definitely are a big player [in commercial markets]," she said, though she admitted its technological sophistication hurts the company. "The business community likes simplicity. It's been difficult for them to make the transition into the business community."

The scalability of ESRI's products, with ArcView to compete against desktop mappers, and ARC/INFO to serve the high-end markets, helps. Many companies can use both for different users.

And some of those users find some pretty 'gee whiz' applications. "The users have always pushed the design envelope," said Clem Henriksen, a product marketer at ESRI. Farmers use MapInfo or ArcView and GPS on tractors to track yield records and soil samples, which allows them to reduce fertilizer use on specific rows or patches.

Investigative journalists, particularly at large papers, have used GIS programs for several years to help on big projects with lots of numbers. MapInfo and Atlas GIS share the market equally.

Brant Houston, managing director of the Investigative Reporters and Editors' National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting, expects those numbers only to grow as computer prices drop.

"Mapping will boom this year," he said. "For several years, journalists didn't do mapping unless they could borrow it from the marketing department, simply because newspapers don't put a lot of money into their newsrooms."

The Miami Herald won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles on Hurricane Andrew that relied on GIS, as well as other database tools and more traditional digging. "I'm led to believe that a considerable portion of it was because of the analysis," said Stephen Doig, associate editor for research, who has been using Atlas GIS on DOS since 1991.

GIS provided the smoking gun in a story that showed human negligence, not an act of God, caused so much destruction. "[Home] builders had sought changes to the building code to keep costs down," Doig said.

The changes seemed unimportant, going from 1/2-inch to 3/8-inch wood on roofs, staples rather than nails. "After the fact, it was easy to see how stupid we had been," he said.

The paper plugged in 60,000 damage inspection reports, hundreds of thousands of tax records and several million building inspection records to a database on a mainframe. With just the first several thousand reports mapped with meteorological records of wind speeds, Doig knew the culprit.

The worst damage was not at all where the highest winds had hit. It wasn't even on cheaper houses. Maps showed "a subdivision with 95 percent of the homes destroyed right next to a subdivision with 5 percent of the homes destroyed," he said. The newest homes -- those built since 1980 -- were, by far, the most flimsy.

GIS Uses

public health

drug enforcement

emergency management

environmental impact statements

tracking trade


military recruiting




bus routing

city planning


social services

tax assessment

traffic analysis


patient analysis

ambulance dispatch

ride sharing

route planning

traffic reports




demographical analysis

distribution analysis

site location

target marketing

cellular phone coverage

call before you dig

maintenance of utility poles

claims processing

managed health care

risk analysis loan

administration merger analysis

banking regulatory compliance

investigative reporting

GIS Prices

GRASSLAND Canadian dollars (no data)$849


MapMarker for the United States (not available for Macs)$10,000

MapInfo Professional$1,295

Data Map extensions$99

ArcInfo(UNIX only, planned for Windows NT) $18,000

ArcView (no data)$1,000


GIS Companies

Logiciels et Applications

Scientifique Inc.

Montreal, Canada

Founded in 1989

Has traditionally produced custom software for GIS users.

Released GRASSLAND in November, a GUI interface and update to GRASS (Geographical Resources Analysis Support System), the high-end GIS software that began the field 15 years ago.

Has 80 percent of sales in U.S., 10 percent in Canada, 10 percent overseas.

MapInfo Corp.

Troy, N.Y.

Founded in 1986

Released MapInfo for DOS in 1987

Released MapInfo for Windows, Macs, Sun and HP with GUI in 1990

Claritas, based in Arlington, Va., adds some of its demographic data in 1993.

Released MapMarker, which adds addresses to data, in June 1995.

Released Data Map, a less powerful version designed to dovetail with Excel, with Windows 95.

Released MapInfo Professional, which adds client/server and GPS compatibility to the product, in December 1995.

MapInfo software is available in 16 languages and 58 countries, with about 150,000 users.

Supports nearly 1,000 resellers and developers, and the vast majority of its products go through resellers.

Revenues of $29.7 million in fiscal year 1994.

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