Online Atlas Gives Pennsylvania a Business Edge

Online Atlas Gives Pennsylvania a Business Edge

Thomas Paese

By Steve LeSueur, Staff Writer



In the fierce competition among cities and states to attract high-tech companies, Pennsylvania has developed a new tool that gives it an edge when businesses come knocking, state officials said.

An online computer database, called the Technology Atlas for a New Pennsylvania, allows prospective businesses to create customized maps that pinpoint the technological resources they would need to operate in the state.

Today, businesses looking to relocate or expand are as interested in Internet access and advanced telecommunications services as they once were in the proximity of highways and train stations, state officials said.

"You must have access to the technology infrastructure," said Thomas Paese, Pennsylvania's secretary of administration. "You need to know what exists."

The atlas could help a business find the cable companies that serve Bedford County, for instance. It could also help that business identify Internet service providers in Philadelphia or those areas covered by Bell Atlantic.

Also, it could display the locations of schools, universities, hospitals and libraries, as well as videoconferencing sites and other resources.

Although the atlas didn't get going in earnest until January, the Web site (www.technology.state.pa.us/atlas) is getting 600 to 1,000 visitors a day, said Jim Williams, a University of Pittsburgh professor of information science and telecommunications who directs the technology atlas effort.

Among the most frequent users are large telecommunications companies such as AT&T Corp. and Hyperion Communications, Coudersport, Penn., he said.

Those two companies and others pursuing Pennsylvania's competition to provide statewide telecommunications services have been guided to the atlas, said Nick Giordano, project director for the telecommunications acquisition project.

"I gave them the Web address ... and told them to use it," said Giordano. "We want them to connect into existing facilities and networks and use what we already have."

The map also is a potentially valuable research tool for systems integrators, he said, because it helps them understand what resources are available and what they might need to bring to the table to operate a business.

The Technology Atlas cost $600,000 to build, and the state pays $150,000 annually to Williams and another professor, who work part time on the effort, and four graduate students to maintain the site.

While Pennsylvania is the first state to go online with a technology map, others are finding innovative ways to advertise their technological capabilities.

For example, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, an independent state authority, has developed a computerized database which, like Pennsylvania's atlas, helps recruit businesses by providing them with information about existing industrial and technological resources.

Virginia's Prospect Decision Support System was completed in the fall, but the partnership is just getting it up and running, and is continuing to add data about the state's economic infrastructure to the system, she said.

Virginia's $1 million system is housed in the partnership's Richmond office, where business representatives can view in person or through videoconferencing a large map showing all the possible Virginia sites that meet their location criteria.

Unlike Pennsylvania's technology atlas, however, the Virginia system is not online.

"We aren't aware of any other state that has developed this type of technology map," said Charles Gerhards, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary of information technology.

Pennsylvania's online atlas was built with data culled from nearly 11,000 schools, libraries, businesses, government agencies and other state organizations. The database contains over 400 million bytes of information which, if printed, would fill 10,000 pages, state officials said.

The atlas is not solely a business recruitment tool because it was designed to help guide spending in Pennsylvania's three-year, $132 million Link-to-Learn program. That program is to help schools acquire and upgrade computers, train teachers and develop a statewide education network.

"We needed an inventory of what we have now to help us make the investments in the technological projects for Link-to-Learn," said Williams.

But Pennsylvania's political leaders quickly saw the project's potential to court business, and they played up this angle when unveiling the project.

"Our ability to use the Technology Atlas database to showcase the wealth of high-tech resources across Pennsylvania is a big plus and unique among states," Gov. Tom Ridge said at a press conference late last year.

The next step for Pennsylvania is a comprehensive study of who uses the technology atlas and why, state officials said.

They believe the map could help a broad spectrum of people in business, schools, universities, hospitals and the mass media take advantage of existing technological resources.

"What we want to do is maximize the infrastructure," said Paese, "and not duplicate it."

As for Virginia, company officials will be able to see theactual sites and buildings electronically, but they also can review the interstate highways, schools, universities, utilities, airports, ports and railroads that are near each potential location, said Jill Lawrence, communications manager for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

"It's one of the most advanced in the country for an economic development organization," said Lawrence.

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