New Solution to a Nagging GIS Problem

Oracle is introducing a database that makes it easier to manipulate geospacial information

After any disaster in the United States, be it flood, earthquake or fire, the Federal Emergency Management Agency must analyze huge volumes of geographic information to figure out where to send help. Considering California alone has encountered all three of these plagues in recent years, it's clear one of the agency's top challenges is now information management.

FEMA, in addition to many other government agencies and businesses, uses a database management tool known as geographic information systems, or GIS, to organize and analyze large volumes of spatial data. GIS software is the fastest growing segment of the information technology market, according to International Data Corp.

But even as GIS technologies are catching on and becoming more sophisticated -- many combine spatial information with CD ROM capabilities, others unite spatial data with photographic images -- some users complain the database technology hasn't caught up with its users.

The problem: Geographic or spatial information describes location in two- or three-dimensional space, creating an enigma for current databases that were designed to store text and columns of numbers. When spatial data is stored in current relational databases, each dimension is stored in a separate column. Therefore, when a user searches the information for points in a certain geographic location, the system must match up columns and go through the entire database to answer the query -- a drain on the computer's resources and the user's time.

As a result, those who use GIS usually have separate databases for geographic information and other data, which is inefficient and expensive. The solution: One database system that can handle all types of data.

"There is an exploding market for a single database that can access both spatial data and traditional tabular data within a common application framework," said David Schell, president of Open GIS Consortium, a group founded to promote interoperable standards for geospatial data.

And one firm, already a leader in information management software, is hoping to cash in on the market that Schell says is waiting.

Oracle Corp. has a new resource to improve how geographic information is handled. The Redwood Shores, Calif.-based firm will unveil MultiDimension next week at GIS '95 in Vancouver, British Columbia. And according to some who helped test Oracle's new database technology, it's going to be a big hit among anyone who handles large amounts of information.

"It has the potential to revolutionize the use of relational databases in situations with very large data sets, especially with spatial information," said Ray Thomas, a division manager at Science Applications International Corp., which is a beta test site for Oracle's latest development.

With Oracle's MultiDimension, users can access both spatial data and traditional tabular data within a common application, said Frank Bishop, vice president for Oracle's federal products division. The key to the firm's database technology is how it stores and encodes spatial data, he said.

MultiDimension codes and stores the data with all its dimensions intact so it can be manipulated quicker and easier. Also, the information is organized geographically within the database so when someone searches for all points within certain geographical parameters, the computer doesn't search the entire database, it queries only the parts of the database with that data, Bishop said.

The $2 billion relational database giant plans to sell its new product, an add-on to its Oracle7 database server, directly to federal agencies and also through systems integrators. SAIC, Booz*Allen & Hamilton, E-Systems and TASC are among the firms that served as test partners for MultiDimension, which took Oracle five years to develop. Set for release in May, the database will cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

Thomas of SAIC said he expects many of his company's customers will want to use MultiDimension to do everything from analyzing traffic control data and weather information, to keeping track of complex financial data.

The seemingly endless number of uses for GIS is what's driving this growing industry. In fact, the GIS market for software, hardware and services is projected to reach $17.2 billion in 1998, according to the Cambridge, Mass.-based market research firm Daratech Inc. With Oracle's introduction of MultiDimension, it will be able to tap this business.

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