Map the money

GIS providers face down advances by Microsoft, Google

For many years, geospatial IT companies have been providing emergency managers with tools to aid in disaster response and infrastructure protection. But with the recent entry into the market of Internet giants Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., that long-established landscape has changed.

Has it caused an earthquake, or just small rumblings?

Since debuting a year ago, Google Earth and Microsoft's MSN Virtual Earth mapping products are shaking things up. For example, days after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, Microsoft and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency began offering free Internet access to aerial photographs of flooded districts.

And for the Homeland Security Department's high-profile Secure Border Initiative-Network contract, Raytheon Co., one of the companies that bid on the contract, presented a solution that included a Google Earth interface.

At this time, Google and Microsoft do not seem to be noticeably supplanting GIS service providers in the government market. But they are offering supplemental niche services and stimulating new applications and "mash ups," or ad hoc applications tailored to a specific purpose, according to several industry experts and executives.

For example, a county emergency manager who cannot afford typical GIS could put together a mash up by downloading Google Earth and laying it over a county road map to prepare an evacuation plan.

"Google Earth and Microsoft have made inroads," said Russ Johnson, manager for public safety and homeland security solutions for Redlands, Calif.-based ESRI, one of the largest vendors of GIS products. "The mash ups are happening."

Market to watch

The GIS market is growing. Worldwide, GIS revenue will reach $3.6 billion in 2006, up from $2.82 billion in 2004, according to a recent report from market research firm Daratech Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Software comprises more than half of the revenue in the GIS market. Industry leaders are ESRI, Bentley Systems Inc. and Intergraph Corp.

The dollar value of public sector purchases of GIS products has increased by 15 percent a year for the last two years, and the government sector now comprises 39 percent of the total GIS market, Daratech said in the report. In the United States, public sector interest is fueled by homeland security, environmental projects and e-government initiatives.

GIS tools have been available to federal, city and county emergency managers for at least two decades. The software is robust and can be overlaid with many other systems and vectors of interest.

For example, aerial images of streets and buildings may be combined with grids for water pipes, sewage lines and electrical wires. Disease outbreaks may be plotted, home by home, on a map to show which neighborhoods are most affected. A toxic chemical release from a factory may be charted and its projected course determined, based on how much was released, wind direction, humidity and other factors.

If a disaster strikes, GIS products incorporate near real-time images of the affected areas, including aerial shots commissioned by federal and state authorities.

Microsoft and Google's geographic products, by contrast, offer satellite images on the Internet. They are free and easy to download, and those with some IT skills can fuse them with other data to create ad hoc maps and charts that can be useful for emergency response.

According to news reports, Google Earth recently was used by aid organizations to help target the best locations to provide aid in Gujarat, India. Emergency operations centers and dispatch centers also are using the products for quick views of a region, Johnson said.

Microsoft and Google products also are part of emergency response planning and critical infrastructure protection efforts. GIS used to be reserved only for those specialists who work with the heavy GIS tools. Now, it is coming out of the back room "and is being incorporated into daily communication and workflow," said Kevin Adler, GIS specialist for Microsoft. A Google Earth spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Old reliable

Despite such trends, many county emergency managers continue to rely on typical GIS systems that offer more extensive capabilities that are unavailable from Google or Microsoft.

When June's torrential rains filled Lake Needwood in Derwood, Md., almost to flooding, Apollo Teng used ESRI software to chart the zones that would be affected by floods, and plugged the data into Montgomery County, Md.'s GIS applications.

"We plotted an area of concern, drew the impact area and generated a list of people inside it," said Teng, the county's GIS team leader. About 2,000 people were evacuated as a precaution.

Montgomery County is working with Maryland to develop an Internet-based GIS system, but so far has not used Google or Microsoft's programs, Teng said.

"We use it rarely, because we have similar data that is more recent and more detailed," he said.

The largest disasters require the most sophisticated capabilities. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, ESRI provided tens of thousands of maps that were used in disaster recovery, response and cleanup.

For example, the ESRI maps helped in identifying and coordinating activity related to damaged buildings and the surrounding area; roads for directing traffic; locations of fiber-optic cables and water, power and sewage lines; and location of plumes of smoke and dust, among other features.

"The software allows you to visualize it, ask questions and analyze," ESRI's Johnson said. "In the weeks after 9/11, we produced 50,000 maps."

GIS software also is helpful in that it can show a common operating picture among all response agencies, to let them all work from a common map, he said.

GIS market giant Autodesk Inc. of San Rafael, Calif., also has been combining mapping tools with computer-aided design for use in rescue efforts in collapsed and damaged buildings.

After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, rescuers used the tools to help find bodies in the debris and speed recovering them, according to Jon Hansen, assistant fire chief in Oklahoma City in 1995 and now Autodesk's manager of emergency response solutions.

So much of the building was destroyed in the bombings, there were mountains of debris, and it was difficult to move around to perform rescues and recoveries, Hansen said.

"Using the computer-aided design, we were able to take detailed floor plans and combine them with the last-known locations of the victims," he said.

If the GIS and floor plans had been preloaded into a computer, it might have made rescues even faster, possibly helping to recover a live victim immediately after the bombings, Hansen added.

"It kind of haunts us now," he said.

Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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