IBM, ESRI Join on Geo Information Systems

IBM, ESRI Join on Geo Information Systems

By William Welsh, Staff Writer

IBM Corp. is joining forces with Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. to create easy-to-use geographic information systems for state and local governments.

While GIS data today resides primarily in the hands of experts trained in how to analyze geographic information on a personal computer, ESRI and IBM officials said it will not be long before nonspecialists within a department or agency can manipulate and analyze this information.

The two companies, which announced the teaming arrangement June 26, hope to make GIS as fundamental to government operations as spreadsheets and databases. And both companies expect to see a rise in GIS software sales and consulting opportunities in the state and local government sector.

"We expect there will be fulfillment of this announcement with real contracts in the latter half of this year," said Kevin Dougherty, strategic accounts manager at Redlands, Calif.-based ESRI.

IBM is forming a GIS consulting group to capitalize on the teaming arrangement, said John Sabol, a business development manager with the Armonk, N.Y.-based company. "The public sector is our first order of priority in terms of the markets that we are going after."

GIS is a computer-based tool for mapping and analysis that provides users with the ability to create maps, integrate information, visualize scenarios and develop effective solutions.

The teaming brings together two powerhouses in the government arena. IBM generated more than $500 million in 1999 with its information technology services for state and local government, making it one of the top five systems integrators in that arena in the nation.

ESRI, a leading provider of GIS software, had 1999 revenue of more than $340 million, with 60 percent coming from the public sector, according to company officials. More than 24,000 state and local governments are currently using the company's software.

Overall revenue for GIS software was approximately $1 billion in 1999, and that figure is expected to double by 2004, according to International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., which analyzes information technology markets.

"Traditionally, ESRI has been extremely successful selling its solutions to departments within a government agency, while IBM's success and marketing sales strategy has been information technology at the enterprise level," said Sabol. "We believe that by combining IBM's strength at managing an enterprisewide, information technology department and ESRI's success at an expert level, we can begin to pull that enterprise out and make it more available to end users."

State and local government agencies have expressed an interest in developing ways to provide wider distribution of GIS within their respective departments and agencies, according to both companies.

Although ESRI routinely upgrades its software and has many advanced generations on the market, it does not intend to go beyond software development, said company officials.

"Our software is a tool and not an application," Dougherty said. "The process of going from tools to application is an important step for our users. We've been helping build a professional function, but we are not in [enterprise server or] main frame connectivity."

IBM's planned GIS consulting group, however, can help government users take that next step, said Sabol. Consultants could help state and local government provide GIS capability to users through a variety of platforms and machines ranging from personal digital assistants to enterprise servers to large main frames.

The two companies "have a common set of customers that have expressed a desire for this type of service," Dougherty said.

While IBM has had pockets of success creating GIS applications for business and government in the United States, the establishment of a consulting practice that could outsource its expertise is a way to increase Big Blue's share of that market, Sabol said.

In the past, GIS and other kinds of geospatial data have been "locked up" in proprietary systems that aren't compatible, said Lance McKee, who is communications director with the Open GIS Consortium Inc. of Wayland. Mass., a group that develops and advocates industry standards for geoprocessing software.

The alliance between ESRI and IBM "will work as long as ESRI continues to participate in the Open GIS Consortium and makes their products conform to these standards, because you are never going to get everyone in an agency to use the same software," said McKee.

What's more, government agencies generally are reluctant to tie themselves down to a single vendor, and therefore companies providing enterprise solutions will need to address interoperability, said McKee.

The geospatial information management market is moving in a new direction, according to IDC. The trend in the spatial information management market is turning away from proprietary systems that support geocentric applications and toward open database systems that support mainstream business process, according to IDC's "1999 Worldwide Spatial Information Management Markets and Trends."

The report states that software and other companies providing spatial technology applications for mainstream businesses are growing at rates two to three times faster than those companies that focus on traditional GIS technology.

"We see much higher growth not in dedicated GIS systems but in business support systems," said Henry Morris, an author of the IDC report.

IBM and ESRI already have identified a growing need to integrate GIS with other data to broaden and improve business systems. One example is how ESRI's ArcView Business Analyst was combined with IBM hardware and software on a project for the Dallas Teachers Credit Union.

When the credit union wanted to upgrade its membership charter from occupation-based to community-based status, it used IBM business intelligence software to compile information on its current members and where potential members would be after the charter change. That information was then plotted on a map using ArcView Business Analyst and sent to Texas Credit Union Department officials along with the request for a change.

The Dallas Teachers Credit Union also uses GIS software to determine branch locations, and plans to use it in the future to study demographics and traffic patterns to determine where to place billboards and automatic teller machines.

"The board of directors likes to see visuals," said Jerry Thompson, vice president and chief information officer of the Dallas Teachers Credit Union. "[This information] is much faster for people to understand when they see it on a map than when it is in a table. In that category, a picture really is worth a thousand words."

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