MapInfo gives clear picture of exports

ITA's William Kolarick got the idea for a geographic information system for export data from watching a TV weather report.

Olivier Douliery

A Web site that maps U.S. export data for each state is saving many hours for Commerce Department employees who have been swamped by an annual doubling of information requests from federal agencies, Congress and the public.

The International Trade Administration two years ago launched the Export Statistics Express Web site, at http://ese.export.gov, with color maps and graphs of annual exports since 1997.

ITA has redirected 91 percent of the saved time toward a laundry list of other chores. The staff used to spend up to 2,000 hours a year -- 50 work weeks -- fulfilling customer requests. Now they spend about 180 hours a year, and the number of requests also has dropped because more data is online.

ITA officials estimated they are saving the $77,000 salary and benefits of at least one GS-13 employee each year. The cost of launching the site was about $630,000.

The surge in data requests "was outstripping our ability to respond," said William Kolarik, director of trade information in the Office of Trade and Economic Analysis. "We knew we had to do something."

Watching TV weather news one night, Kolarik studied the mapping technology used by the meteorologists. He decided that a geographic information system could depict more than sunny skies or chance of rain. He thought it might be the answer for illustrating states' export trends.

Kolarik set out in 1999 to build a site, working with MapInfo Corp. of Troy, N.Y., whose data analysis software ITA had licensed for several years. MapInfo, which was not on the General Services Administration IT Schedule, set up the arrangement as a subcontractor to Northrop Grumman Corp.

MapInfo has more than 600 employees worldwide, and brought in $92.6 million in revenue this past fiscal year. It's developed mapping capabilities for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Cancer Institute and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as several state and local customers.

ITA laid out the concept, contracting to MapInfo the coding its own employees couldn't perform. After a prototype and beta test -- and a few thousand hours of ITA's internal programming -- the export statistics site was ready in January 2001.

"What you see now went through many, many revisions," said Jim Regan, a senior consultant in MapInfo's professional services department. "It was built from scratch to ITA's specs."

MapXtreme 2.5, MapInfo's Web server software for mapping, uses GIS capability and thematic shading to display 300,000 records of annual trade data -- 100G in all.

For ITA, the software processes each electronic request through Microsoft Internet Information Services. It sends the results to desktop PCs running Microsoft Windows 2000, NT or XP with Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.5 or Netscape Navigator 4.7 browsers, or later versions.

The MapInfo software is distributed across three IIS servers. The agency wanted the site to comply with Section 508 accessibility requirements and have an interface as understandable to users seeking data for marketing campaigns as to those conducting complex trade negotiations.

With a few clicks, users can view a breakdown of a state's exports throughout the world, a state-by-state distribution of exports to a selected foreign market, or state-to-market breakdowns. The pie charts, graphs and maps are downloadable and importable.

Based on the most-requested information, ITA and MapInfo concluded this was the best way for internal as well as external users to hunt for larger trade trends.

"How can I know things in my data that are a function of geography? This is the only way to do that," said Jim Blakeslee, MapInfo's manager of federal and civilian government sales.

ITA hopes to add quarterly data by state and, eventually, national trade data. It also wants sorting functions to find the state-by-state distribution of export jobs, specific exporters, and the balance of import and export data. Some of those changes could emerge by the end of this year. ITA and MapInfo also want to streamline the downloading of maps and charts into Microsoft Word or PowerPoint files.

"What we've established here can be extended to a range of other applications," Kolarik said. "This has a very bright future for our agency." *

Vandana Sinha is a staff writer with Government Computer News. She can be reached at vsinha@postnewsweektech.com.

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