Geographic Information Systems: Migrating to a Desktop Near You

Seeing is believing ? and understanding, according to designers of geographic information systems.

Representing layered information in visual form plays to a primary human strength: using the eye to assess, decide and act.

Whether you are a winemaker in California, a government official planning new roads and schools or a developer promoting your local community, GIS is a powerful tool for presenting and conveying large amounts of data.

The public sector, particularly state and local governments, was the first to recognize this strength in GIS and has been one of its biggest users. Now high-speed, high-capacity computer systems and relatively inexpensive access to high-resolution satellite imagery are encouraging the spread and routine incorporation of GIS applications.

Economies of scale also are accelerating GIS adoption, as widespread use across organizations continues to slash per-user costs. GIS programs are offering managers, politicians and the general public unprecedented views of dense fields of data that previously could be represented only on paper, often confusingly and usually after laborious transcription and cross-correlation.

Attention-grabbing and visually engaging, the emerging GIS generation of desktop-PC applications accurately incorporates complex, interrelated data sets that otherwise would appear as eye-numbing tables or charts.

Planners have put these powerful, easy-to-use systems to work in such disparate areas as census taking, zoning, utility planning and maintenance, traffic analysis, redistricting, bus routing, city management, land use, forestry, agriculture, economic development, mining, firefighting, policing and crime analysis.

In short, the experts say GIS can be used in every discipline that involves the movement of goods, services and citizens in space and through time.

"GIS is a spatial database of facts and figures that have a physical relationship to things on the ground," said Russ Cowart, president of GIS firm i-cubed in Fort Collins, Colo. "Visual presentation of information is more intuitive. Because you can relate intellectually to it more easily, you're more effective in your thinking. People can make better decisions when they put things in spatial context."


The Evolving Meaning of GIS
Visitors to the Web site GIS.com will learn that geographic information systems are a combination of computer software, hardware and data that, with human interaction and control, present and analyze information connected to a spatial location.

But definitions change. Recently, as research company Daratech Inc. noted, some vendors have eschewed the term GIS for the phrase "spatial data analysis," which they believe more accurately defines the marriage of information and geography.
With context comes profit and good business for providers and systems integrators. According to a 2000 report by Daratech Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., market research firm, total worldwide sales of GIS-related software and hardware hit nearly $7 billion last year. This year, market size is predicted to grow to more than $8 billion.

The report forecasts continued public-sector growth as well as rapid expansion throughout the private sector. The growth is fueled by the increasing adoption of GIS by organizations that previously did not use it. Users are applying the technology in innovative ways.

"Indeed, these new customer markets and applications are recasting and enlarging the very definition of GIS, as geographic analysis and visualization technologies come to be embedded into databases, spreadsheets, corporate intranets and enterprise information systems," said the Daratech study.

State and local governments were the early adopters of GIS and remain the biggest users.

As e-government initiatives gather momentum, GIS applications are especially useful because they identify geographically dependent citizen services that are the lifeblood of regional jurisdictions.

"Historically, the public sector has driven the growth of GIS," said John Sabol, IBM Corp.'s manager of a strategic alliance between Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM and Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. of Redlands, Calif., one of the world's largest GIS companies.

"[Regional] government use GIS to plot maps for real estate, utilities, highways and so forth. The technology is terrific for all the infrastructure planning work that needs to be done on the local and state levels. GIS provides a new way of looking at data in a visual context," he said.

On the federal end, as part of a contract with the U.S. Census Bureau, ESRI has launched Census Watch, a Web portal that consolidates census-related resources and links, providing users with instant access to the most recent census information. Visitors to Census Watch can also keep up on Census 2000 redistricting plans with links to state and national data centers.

With IBM, ESRI has been developing the American FactFinder project, a data dissemination system that will provide public access to demographic and economic information. The project is based on ESRI's ArcIMS technology, with browsing, searching and mapping capabilities.

"With GIS, you can show things that otherwise couldn't be rendered any other way," said Kevin Daugherty, ESRI strategic accounts manager.

"GIS is really about information ? information that refers back to a geographic base," he said. "The Census Bureau is a classic example of the two coming together."

For governments far from the seat of national power, GIS can be a way to leverage location. In particular, economic developers are using GIS to pitch the virtues of their respective locales.

As firms seek to keep costs low, find a good quality of life for workers and perhaps even unearth financial incentives in the form of real-estate subsidies or tax breaks, rural can rule.

"When you have a business decision to make, there's almost always a component that relates to geography," said Jamie Carothers, marketing director for Vestra Resources Inc., Redding, Calif. "It's that old adage: location, location, location. Location translates to many different applications. You put that information in digital form, and you'll have it at your fingertips."

Vestra is building GIS "dataframes" for counties in northern California, working with partner firms whose personnel literally drives roads and takes digital pictures of back roads, bridges, signs and railroad crossings. These images are combined with topographical data, integrated with aerial maps (themselves adjusted for visual distortion caused by the distance of the camera lens from photographed terrain) and further leavened by adding other statistical information on agricultural activity, business licenses, population density and the like.

The richer a GIS database, the better; not just to help localities with matters such as routine maintenance or natural disaster, but as a means of delivering accurate information on demand, either to business prospects or to citizens.

GIS is helping thousands of communities across the country to aid or promote local industry. In California, Vestra has teamed with NASA in a project known as the Viticultural Integration of NASA Technologies for Assessment of the Grapevine Environment, or Vintage.

Launched at the end of the 1999 growing season, Vintage aims to refine satellite-based, remote-sensing imagery as a tool to improve grape harvest and assess the impact of rainfall and irrigation.

Growers take the orbital information, pinpoint ground coordinates and focus on smaller vineyard segments. This bird's-eye, but concentrated, view of small plots gives growers a more complete view of vine health or stress, permitting a fine-tuning of different approaches to harvesting or water delivery design.

Because specialists have developed less-expensive methods to increase the detail over broad geographical reaches, eyes-high-in-the-sky pictures are available to the general public.

One company, i-cubed, now sells clear-sky, high-resolution satellite pictures of the United States literally by the square mile and at about 20 percent of previous costs, according to company president Russ Cowart. A picture of the entire country runs about $100,000, with a highest per-square-mile price of 25 cents. The images are crisp and cheap and can be easily sandwiched within desktop GIS programs.

"GIS is being integrated into core applications," he said. "It's becoming much less of an individual stand-alone. GIS adds spatial functionality to traditional applications such as databases, management tools and so on. We have computers that are fast enough and powerful enough to handle the large data sets that are generated."

Cowart said that while the GIS future may be bright, it is less likely to be distinctive as a pricey, stand-alone application. His prognostication: Look to routine PC integration, with a strong Internet presence and mobile capabilities.

As with any common desktop application, such as spreadsheets, GIS programs will be portable, platform-compatible and a snap to use. The easier and cheaper, the more commonplace GIS will become, in a self-sustaining cycle.

"You'll be able to go online and instantly get what you need," Cowart said. "You'll pay depending on how long you're there and how much you need. You'll be willing to pay because, as costs drop, the value proposition of GIS data will become very clear."

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