Locking Up the Lay of the Land

The high-tech mapping business has unofficially made the Washington metropolitan region its capital

The mapping business has become a lucrative pursuit for many companies in the Washington, D.C. region as the field has moved from simple line drawings to computer-generated digital representations.

Hundreds of companies and organizations in the Capital region produce and use high-tech maps for everything from monitoring environmental changes and developing marketing strategies, to preparing for emergency response.

"Certainly a strong claim can be made that Washington, D.C,. is one of the mapping centers of the world," said Tom Reed, group vice president responsible for Vision International, an Alexandria, Va.-based subsidiary of Automatic, Inc. Other regions that stand near the top of the list include Northern California, the northeast United States, and Germany, he said.

But the mapping business in the Washington region is more highly concentrated than in these other places.

In fact, the small Northern Virginia community of Reston boasts at least half-a-dozen mapping organizations, leading one industry executive to nickname the city "Map Valley" -- merging Silicon Valley with Sunrise Valley Drive, the main Reston route.

Ted Nanz, president of Spot Image Corporation, which has its U.S. headquarters in Reston, but is actually a French-owned firm, says Map Valley may hold the highest concentration of mapping firms in the world.

The U.S. Geological Survey, major operations of the United States Defense Mapping Agency, Hughes Technology, The Analytic Science Corporation (TASC), and the ESL division of TRW all reside in Reston.

Greater Washington is host to a myriad of other mapping related companies including Eosat, Hughes STX, Orbital Science Corporation, Martin Marietta, ERDAS, Intergraph, Autometric Inc. and The American Congress on Surveying and Mapping, a Bethesda, Md.-based mapping association.

"There's more mapping in the D.C. region than there is semiconductor business in Silicon Valley, or research in Research Triangle," Nanz said.

Washington is a natural place for the business to grow up because the federal government is the largest consumer of all information -- including geographic information. It's natural that with the Defense Mapping Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey in the area, people with technical specialties would congregate around them, Nanz said.

The mapping field over the last 20 years has gone through a dramatic shift toward high-tech products and services.

Digitized maps are becoming the foundation for in-vehicle navigation systems and are being turned into giant databases called Geographic Information Systems that can be used for environmental monitoring, marketing, or a number of other applications.

Satellite images have spawned a space-aged mapping business that produces more than just pretty pictures.

Today, the industry is worth about $100 million a year and observers project the market will be worth up to $4 billion by the turn of the century.

With industry stars such as Spot and Eosat in the area, companies in the Capital region are likely to capture a lion's share of revenues from the space-based mapping business.

One thing missing in this region to encourage a strong mapping industry are leading academic centers, although both George Washington and George Mason Universities are moving in that direction, Nanz said.

The University of Maryland also has advanced programs in geographic information systems.

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