Maps: the new application interface

Agencies are adding GIS layers to existing programs to improve access to information

Patrick Air Force Base has put itself on the map, and not just metaphorically. The home to NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, Fla., is using geographic information systems to give its personnel fast access to information in an easy-to-use, familiar interface: a map.

And Patrick isn't alone. More agencies are finding that GIS can provide a front-end interface to information and applications they already have in place.

Web-based map apps let agencies bring together materials stored in disparate locations, applications and file formats, thereby breaking down data silos and creating central clearinghouses. Which in turn enables them to shave days off requests for information, save on staffing costs and respond more rapidly in emergencies.

Mapping mash-ups

In April 2004, Patrick AFB decided it was time to go digital. So it asked Autodesk Inc. of San Rafael, Calif., to help take 70 years' worth of drawings, photographs, schematics and other paper-based documents and make them accessible via their browsers, said Mike Gilley, geobase manager for the base. The result: the Base Visualization Tool, which uses a 2-D map of the base as the door to terabytes of information.

Using the BVT, Gilley can see every one of the 595 buildings on Patrick's 2,200 acres. With a few mouse clicks, he can view everything from aerial photographs and road maps to floor plans and schematics and see which buildings are considered critical facilities. So can any other base personnel who log into the system.

Gilley estimates that using the BVT will cut visits to the base's GIS Office by 75 percent, as well as reduce off the time required to fill each request. Now, when base personnel need schematics or floor plans for a particular building, they can log into the BVT and fetch them in minutes.

But the BVT was only the beginning of Patrick's GIS plans. The AFB recently rolled out two more map-based applications that use the same underlying data in different ways. Its Facilities Infrastructure Assessment Tool enables base personnel to quickly assess and collate damage reports after a storm or other cataclysmic event. Using FIAT allows the base to meet new requirements to report damage within 48 hours of the event.

The second app, Crisis Command, gives first responders a single interface for coordinating activities in the event of a fire, chemical spill, car bomb or other crisis. Emergency personnel need merely identify the type and location of the threat, and Crisis Command can tell them which buildings need to be evacuated and where they should set up their mobile command post.

Base leadership and other need-to-know personnel can view tactical and strategic response on the map. The map refreshes across the communications enterprise network every 10 seconds via secure Internet connection and also gives headquarters the same capability.

Despite their sophisticated functionality, the key to these applications is their simplicity, Gilley said.

'A tool like this has to be simple enough for wing leadership to understand so they can use it effectively,' he said. 'With this tool, you don't need to know anything about GIS or mapping. You just need to know how to click a mouse.'

Hard work ahead

A similar marriage of document management and maps is going on at the Army Corps of Engineers, which is rolling out Hummingbird Enterprise for ESRI to manage geospatial data for the 35,000 Corps members.

The USACE's solution integrates Hummingbird Ltd.'s content management system with ArcIMS mapping software from ESRI of Redlands, Calif.. By clicking on a map, USACE users can call up any content related to a location, whether it's a drawing, photo, Microsoft Word document, Excel spreadsheet, e-mail message or video file, said Hugh Ritchie, an industry manager for Hummingbird, of Toronto. They can also access multiple layers of information for each location. For example, a user can view a photo of a building, call up its property records, view the pipes or electrical systems that run beneath it or display a map of all nearby fire hydrants.

Before Hummingbird, the USACE used an Access database with a custom Web-enabled front end, but this solution ultimately couldn't handle the volume or type of documents the Corps needed to store, said Lynn Hardegree, a physical scientist who manages GIS and remote-sensing applications for the Corps' Engineering Infrastructure Intelligence Reachback Center.

But moving from a home-grown database and/or paper records to a Web-based GIS system isn't a trivial task. Besides creating a database that can handle large volumes of disparate media, agencies may also need to scan thousands of paper documents and assign metadata tags to each one, so they can establish relationships between dissimilar documents that relate to the same geographical location.

With archived documents going back decades, the process can be arduous, but Ritchie said software tools can automatically create tags for certain types of documents as they're scanned.

Patrick AFB relied on custom programmers at Autodesk to build its BVT
application and convert nearly 7,000 large, computer-aided design files into the smaller Design Web Format that can display inside a browser.

Building the app took 30 days, Gilley said. So far, Gilley's team has scanned in nearly 18,000 of the 50,000 drawings in the base archives, starting with the most mission-critical structures.

Turf wars

Another challenge in putting GIS front ends on agency information has to do with getting each organization within the agency to adopt standard ways of handling metadata. They also have to give up some control over the information they maintain.

Some organizations are better at meeting these challenges than others, said Toby Bell, research director for Gartner's high-performance workplace group in Chicago.

'Data availability is critical to decision-making, especially for organizations like the Army Corps of Engineers,' Bell said. 'I don't think they have the same stakeholder fiefdom problem you see in a lot of enterprises, where siloed information is unavailable to other parts of the same organization.'

Bell said that while the volume of information available has increased exponentially, users are often unable to get access to the data in a form that is useful to them. Tying data to a map simplifies the query process and puts the information in context.

'The crisis ahead in content management is that a lot of systems don't hit end users where they live,' he said. 'Map-based queries put the information where people can use it.'

Such data mapping mash-ups, which Gartner terms 'content-enabled vertical applications,' are likely to gain popularity, Bell said. They're an especially good fit for data-intensive fields, where staffers could use an online map instead of a screen of fields and menus to access different types of records.

A Web developer in Chicago recently overlaid Google Maps on police data feeds to create an interactive application that pinpoints crime trends throughout the city.

The map is effectively an interface to the underlying database of crime statistics [read more at GCN.com/663]. The challenge going forward will be to ensure that such mapping mash-ups work via still-evolving geospatial standards [< ahref="http://GCN.com">GCN.com, GCN.com/688]. For its part, Autodesk recently tried to make integration easier by linking many of its products to Google Earth Professional.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is currently running pilot programs of BVT and Crisis Command at its Hill, Robins and Tinker bases in Utah, Georgia and Oklahoma, respectively. AutoCAD Crisis Command has already been deployed by local government agencies in Sheboygan, Wis., Grand Forks, N.D., and at Florida's Emergency Operations Center.

Ultimately, blending the world of text and images with mapping takes a fair amount of upfront work, said Hummingbird's Ritchie, but the payoff is worth it.

'Document management and GIS are two distinctly different worlds,' he said. 'Like oil and water, they don't naturally mix. But if you can figure out a way to bring the two of them together, they make damned good salad dressing.'

Based in North Carolina, Dan Tynan writes about technology for many magazines and Web sites. He is author of Computer Privacy Annoyances (O'Reilly Media, 2005).

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