Geographic Information Systems Go Mainstream

Geographic Information Systems Go Mainstream

By John Makulowich

If "follow the money" is your tack on tracking technology, then it's time to seriously consider geographic information systems.

Industry leaders Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp. are jumping into the growing information technology sector, which has been saddled with a reputation that placed it on the outskirts of the enterprise.

Now, however, developments such as faster processors in PCs, the work on OpenGIS Simple Features Specifications done by the Open GIS Consortium Inc. in Wayland, Mass., and the general availability of large data sets from the U.S. Geological Survey are starting to bring GIS toward the mainstream.

Microsoft signed a cooperative research and development agreement last May with the U.S. Geological Survey to make vast amounts of geospatial data available to the general public via the Internet. That project is starting to yield results.

And Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle has decided to fund the University of Arkansas Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies as its first Center for Excellence for Spatial Data Management.

"In the past, spatial data has been very important to business, but because of its structure and complexity, it's been seen as different, as 'That GIS thing,'" said Fred Limp, director of the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies in Fayetteville, Ark., the organization on the receiving end of Oracle's $1.8 million largesse.


Open GIS Consortium Inc. in Wayland, Mass. (

U.S. Geological Survey (

According to Limp, the view was somewhat warranted. The information systems for GIS were not like standard enterprise-type database systems and they were data intensive and display intensive.

These issues showed up in students as well. Limp notes that they came to the university with either good geography or computer science skills, but not both. While there is some difficulty in bridging these two, this is not the case in Europe.

"In Europe, these two are required in what are called geomatics or geoinformatics curricula. Part of our task now is to help our students master special geography type questions, to master the information systems side of things. Many are excellent GIS users, but they need to master the larger information systems environment," says Limp.

Now, as a condition for Oracle funding, the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies will integrate Oracle products into its curri- culum and develop new courses that use the Oracle8 Spatial Cartridge, which is the database company's software technology for managing geospatial data.

Set up in 1991, the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies focuses on education, research, technology transfer, data development, communities and local governments as well as professional training in GIS technologies. The Center for Excellence itself will not only focus on defining the next generation of spatial applications, but also work with Oracle's Spatial Cartridge team to create courses, an Oracle graduate assistantship and a summer internship pro- gram on-site at Oracle. Oracle also invited the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies to be a founding member in its Spatial Research Laboratory, recently established at Oracle's New England Development Center in Nashua, N.H.

Using the Oracle technology, Limp intends to help highway departments, among others, solve problems in updating roads, bridges and water lines. By developing and converting comprehensive sets of spatial data, the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies will make available to governmental units data that are easier to share with other departments and to serve end users throughout the state.

Part of the original announcement in late January of the Oracle funding of the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies took a swipe at Menlo Park, Calif.-based Informix Corp., as Limp revealed that the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies was shifting all its database applications and research from that firm to Oracle.

Says Limp: "Our decision has been based primarily on Oracle's development of the Spatial Cartridge technology and the way in which they have integrated geospatial data into their object-relational database management system and their support for the OpenGIS standards. It is clear to us that the object-relational [database management system] provides substantial advantages over existing spatial data storage systems, and Oracle has the best geospatial DBMS."

Oracle and the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies will build a warehouse of Arkansas geodata (Seamless Warehouse of Arkansas Geodata, or SWAG) that will scale from statewide coverage to individual parcels that users can access at remote locations while running different types of local geoprocessing applications. Expected to be the first large-scale application of this kind available to state and local governments, SWAG will likely exceed a terabyte in size with the addition of image data late next year.

Comparing Image Formats

Parameters MrSID LZW JPEG
Compressed size 639 Kb 9,340 Kb 1,872 Kb
Compression ratio 33:1 2:1 12:1
Resolution Excellent Excellent Poor
Compression speed 1.5 min. 1.5 min. 1.5 min.
Decompression speed 2 sec. 14 min. 5.11 min
Download time 7.25 sec. 38.9 min. 8.7 min.
Internet ready yes no yes
Selective decompression yes no no
Geometric accuracy yes yes no
Efficiency Excellent Poor Poor
Source: LizardTech

On the other side of the country, Microsoft is busy at work on a cooperative research and development agreement with U.S. Geological Survey. Capitalizing on the USGS repository of image data, that is, aerial and satellite photography that has been digitized, the Redmond, Wash., software giant has three stated goals in forging the agreement with the federal government.

First, resample and partition a large volume of USGS geospatial data so the images can be displayed quickly and easily via the Internet. Second, develop an easy-to-use interface for low-speed connections so the general public can enjoy the fruits of USGS aerial mapping labor. And third, work on a data network that can serve millions of users each day.

Beyond those goals are others, part of the so-called Terra Server Project. They include loading a 1 terabyte SQL Server database on an NT Server to demonstrate that NT and SQL Server can support huge databases as well as pioneering the use of SQL Server as a store for spatial data. Currently, SQL version 6.5 can handle databases in the 750 GB range. The next generation of SQL, code named Sphinx, is planned to handle multiple terabytes of data.

Leading the effort is Tom Barclay, a program manager in Microsoft's Bay Area Research Group in San Francisco. He is working with Digital Equipment Corp. of Maynard, Mass., the SPIN-2 (Space Information - 2 Meter) project, USGS, University of California Santa Barbara Alexandria Digital Library in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Microsoft's Geography Business Unit. That latter group produces Encarta World Atlas, Automap Streets and Trip Planner.

(The SPIN-2 project is composed of Interbranch Association Sovinformsputnik in Moscow, Russia; Aerial Images Inc. in Raleigh, N.C.; and Central Trading Systems Inc. in Huntington Bay, N.Y. They jointly market high-resolution panchromatic Russian satellite imagery data gathered from formerly classified Russian military satellite systems.)

"The image data sets are quite large, nearly 50 megabytes, and thus difficult to deal with in an Internet-type environment. One of the problems we are trying to solve is how to view the images without special equipment. We also want to increase the scalability of SQL and the NT operating system with a good demonstration done in a very public way. The issues boil down to performance and capacity," says Barclay.

The images in question are so-called DOQs (pronounced D-O-Q), or ortho-photo quadrangle, a computer image of an aerial photograph taken at about 40,000 feet. The first phase of the cooperative research and development agreement aims to store and display over 3 terabytes of USGS DOQ images.

"The common man has limited access to this data. We are taking complicated data sets that are technically challenging and packaging them, making them visually appealing, so people without expensive equipment can use them. Our model is the sixth-grade geography student. We are due to go live this spring from a Web site," explains Barclay.

On the USGS side, the Interior Department was interested in new and better ways to present and offer for sale nearly 60,000 files, which average about 46 MB.

"Our goal in signing the [cooperative research and development agreement] with Microsoft is to make more people aware of these data, that they are available in an easily accessible way and for a very reasonable fee. The way Microsoft serves the data and how that works on the browser is of interest to us. We hope the Web site will be a popular place," says Beth Duff, USGS information specialist.

"Microsoft's role is to address the problem. Our role is to deliver these little quarter quads. They are trying to organize a database to panel these all together so a user on the Internet can find the section they're interested in."

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