Geography rules

Autodesk Inc.'s Autodesk Map 5.0 includes the company's AutoCAD 2002 and supports georeferenced imagery formats. It's priced at $3,011.

ESRI's ArcView 8.2 includes support for the International Standards Organization's Metadata Standard. It's priced at $1,500.

New tools and better interoperability add more power to GIS software

Geographic information systems were a public-sector staple for years before businesses got into the act.

Government agencies are the home of many of the world's electronic maps and the GIS specialists who master and manipulate them. There is barely a municipal or county government of any size that doesn't use GIS for land use planning, environmental management or public works.

Since last year, the need for homeland security has driven a need for new GIS applications to document and track at-risk public infrastructures, plot civilian escape routes and coordinate security among jurisdictions.

Overall demand for GIS software continues to grow. Market researcher Daratech Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., reports worldwide revenue was $1.01 billion in 2001, with the largest slice'20 percent'coming from state and local governments. Federal agencies accounted for 9 percent.

Emerging GIS technologies all address new ways to get geospatial data into a system from more locations'or distribute it, be it through an enterprise or across the globe.

Locational awareness

Major vendors all have software that displays GIS data and maps on handheld devices. Wireless mechanisms proliferate: Global Positioning System devices can relate a person's current location to data and some cellular phones have location awareness'usually provided by triangulation applications built into the network'to help emergency workers pinpoint those in distress.

Location-based services are popular in the commercial world but might ultimately find more use in government to transmit, for example, sewer schematics to public works personnel on site. Some analysts point out that wireless's low bandwidth can't really handle the famously large GIS image files, but this will improve with the arrival of broadband and better compression.

GIS images and data also are increasingly loaded onto specialized Web servers for sharing over agency intranets or with the public. They're also broken out into object-oriented components for in-house application development and viewed from Web browsers or more capable but expensive ActiveX and Java plug-ins.

Export-import business

Historically, exporting and importing different file formats has been a hassle, but software publishers have gotten reasonably good at reading each other's most popular formats.

Such interoperability is important at the user level because GIS users rarely create new data'they're usually using existing files. But it's also critical to furthering GIS' advance into the mainstream of information technology. Enterprisewide availability of geospatial data requires that it be easily read across platforms and applications.

GIS software now allows storage of both images and data in relational databases such as IBM DB2, Microsoft SQL Server, and Oracle8i and Oracle9i. Database vendors, especially IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp., have responded with geospatial extensions and, recently, built-in support.

Storing GIS data this way creates a sort of standardized GIS gateway that smooths out incompatibilities. But beware: Some products might only store the text attributes of GIS in the database, not the spatial data.

The newest products claim some support for the Open GIS Consortium, an industry group that hashes out specifications for data sharing, Web publishing and other interoperability requirements.

Participants 'are making a good-faith effort,' Daratech executive vice president Bruce Jenkins said. But committee work moves slowly, and 'vendors don't want to make it too easy for their customers to take their data elsewhere,' he said.

Geographic Markup Language, similar to Extensible Markup Language, also is emerging as a data standard, and so-called Web services technologies such as Microsoft .Net and Sun Microsystems One promise to make geospatial information universally accessible.

The idea is to make geodata commonplace on computers. 'In 12 to 24 months, you're going to see the technology become ubiquitous, and therefore invisible,' predicts David Sonnen, a senior consultant for International Data Group in Framingham, Mass.

The accompanying chart contains a sampling of general-purpose desktop programs'to qualify, they must allow map creation'and server GIS tools. Not shown are viewers, mobile connectivity products, plug-ins, or primarily business-oriented products.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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