MapInfo brings GIS to the masses

Box Score

With a lot of mapping software, functionality is about three things: location, location and location. But with MapInfo Professional 7.8, location is just one part of the equation.

In recent years, lots of software has added geographic information system data to maps. But the process of getting reference data to overlay maps has always been a complicated one. Most users could do only very simple data analysis'detailed information mining had to be done by specialists.

MapInfo Professional does a good job of bringing GIS power to the average user. It does this in two ways, both of which we tested in the lab.

First it exploits data wherever it lives by conforming to Open Geospatial Consortium standards. This means it can read almost any data format without forcing the user to use third-party translation software or hand-keying the relevant information into MapInfo. We tested it with two major databases'Oracle and Microsoft Access'plus a handful of other data sources. We didn't encounter any problems and were able to use the data as if it were native to MapInfo.

The second way that MapInfo makes things easier for users is at the front end. The user in-terface is intuitive and makes use of simple drag-and-drop and point-and-click features. No programming skills are required.

For example, when working in MapInfo, we wanted to take some GIS data that we'd collected and put it into a Microsoft Word file. Using the grabber tool, we easily picked it up and dropped it into the file like any other picture or object.

Live or static mode

Next, we were given the choice of making the data live or static. In live mode, the data in the Word file points back to the original data source. When we went back and changed the source to update some information, the data in the Word document automatically updated itself. In static mode, the map exists as a simple graphic file.

If you didn't know a lot about the back-end processes of linking GIS data to locations on a map, you might think that what MapInfo does is fairly straightforward. It's not. But the software takes a necessarily complex process and presents it in a simple way. There are even wizards to help you out. For example, if you want to shade maps based on criteria in your data set, you simply run a wizard and tell MapInfo what data to use and what it means. You can shade maps based on population density, the gender of people living there, income levels or any other criterion in your data.

Puts ZIP in maps

You can also define border areas by ZIP code, something we have not found in other mapping programs. This lets you better break down a data set, because small sample locations are often more accurate that large ones.

One especially useful feature is an interactive tutorial that walks you through both the basic and advanced capabilities of the program. Users don't have to pore over a complicated manual and can either zero in on just the areas they need or take some extra time to learn the entire feature set.

Realistically, the only things you really need to learn are GIS concepts, such as the fact that every polygon represents a piece of data and every line represents either a relationship or a border. Once you understand the basic concepts of how MapInfo handles GIS information, the world of GIS is pretty much an open book.

To gauge the usefulness of the program for government users, we set up a test model and populated it with a simple set of rules. The rules we used stipulated that criminals rarely traveled more than a few blocks from their home address to commit crimes within a fictional city, which in our test was a subset of Boston. Then we plotted four different types of crimes at various locations within the city and were able to target specific neighborhoods to comb for suspects.

Although this was a simple model, we were able to complete it in less than an hour while still learning the program. It was easy to see how MapInfo could make complex models accessible to any user.

MapInfo does a great job of taking the complex world of GIS info and making it useful to agency workers who don't specialize in GIS data. The simple interface and powerful features look to us like a road map for all future GIS programs.

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