Putting GIS on the map

Mapping products become feature-rich and user-friendly

Our nation has long had an association with maps. It got its name when a 16th-century cartographer created a world map and wrote the word 'America' on a section of South America visited by the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci.

Two hundred years later, George Washington tromped around the Virginia wilderness, surveying and mapping more than 200 tracts of land and later carried that experience into his presidency:
'The want of accurate Maps of the Country, which has hitherto been the Scene of War, has been a great disadvantage to me. I have in vain endeavored to procure them and have been obliged to make shift, with such sketches as I could trace from my own Observations,' he wrote.

Whether or not the federal government has fully adhered to Washington's political ideas over the centuries, it has certainly fulfilled his desire for accurate maps.

The Geological Survey provides online interactive maps, NASA's Shuttle Radar Topography Mission produced a 3-D image of 80 percent of the Earth's surface and the Defense Department's fleet of global-positioning satellites helps people navigate the streets of unfamiliar cities.

But while government does much of the original research and mapping, it is the private sector that creates many of the tools that convert the raw data into useful operational information.

New name, same game

Geographic information systems have been around since the early 1980s, but the product landscape continues to evolve. For one thing, vendors keep adding new features. This has resulted in some sellers changing the 'G' in GIS from 'geographic' to 'geospatial.'

As the Open Geospatial Consortium (www.opengeospatial.org) explains on its Web site, ' 'Geographic' is the right word for graphic presentation'maps'of features and phenomena on or near the Earth's surface. 'Geospatial' refers to data about Earth features and phenomena, but the data are not necessarily graphically presented. Many geoprocessing applications do not involve a human-readable map on a display.'

For utilities, for example, nongeographic information includes customer-billing information. For police, it may mean assigning incident reports to a location in order to detect crime hot spots. Fire departments can link the maps to construction or hazardous materials information, so they know what they are facing before rushing into a burning building.

Another major development is that the software is becoming cheaper and more user-friendly.

Vendors such as Intergraph Corp. of Huntsville, Ala., and Environmental Systems Research Inc. of Redlands, Calif., which began as premium-priced, full-function suppliers, are extending their product offerings to appeal to all classes of buyers, said Tim Hickey, analyst and managing editor for Daratech Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.

'At the same time, some vendors that pioneered desktop GIS have developed and are succeeding with enterprise-level offerings, often in conjunction with influential partners such as Oracle Corp.,' he said.

While there are dozens of free and commercial GIS tools around, the market is dominated by ESRI and Intergraph, whose combined sales account for nearly half of all GIS revenue worldwide. But there are other key players as well.

Here's a rundown of major GIS companies and their products:
ESRI, a privately held company, is the granddaddy of all GIS software firms. It started out as a land-use planning consultancy in 1969, and 13 years later released Arc/Info, the first commercial GIS software.

Since then, it has grown into the world's largest GIS firm with nearly 3,000 employees. It offers a complete suite of GIS products for desktop, server and mobile devices. In addition to its primary enterprise suite, ArcGIS 9, it also sells a number of specialized applications and some Web services.

Originally called M&S Computing, Intergraph was founded the same year as ESRI, but where ESRI started out in land-use planning, Intergraph began as a computing firm specializing in missile-guidance systems before shifting to graphics. Intergraph offers several suites of GIS products, including specialized ones for energy companies and utilities.

Autodesk Inc. of San Raphael, Calif., is the creator of the popular AutoCAD design software. It also has a group of server, desktop and Web GIS products. If an organization is already using AutoCAD, these products may be the best bet for combining drawings with mapping software.
GE Energy of Denver offers GIS products tailored to pipeline construction, maintenance and management.

Leica Geosystems of St. Gallen, Switzerland, has a background in optics as a manufacturer of cameras, microscopes and, as its route into GIS, surveying equipment. It produces image-processing software to match photographs with GIS applications. These are used, for example, to combine an aerial photograph of a town with a GIS program to identify structures in the photo.

In addition to buying GIS software, government agencies can also purchase mapping services. MapInfo Corp. of Troy, N.Y., for example, lists the Marshals Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency among its customers.

According to Daratech, global sales of GIS products and services rose just above $2 billion last year, an increase of 9.7 percent over 2003.

Utilities and telecom companies, which use the software to track their wires, poles and pipes, remained the largest purchasers.

Governments were the second-largest customer group. They accounted for 29 percent of sales and are growing faster than private-sector purchases, driven in part by homeland security initiatives.

In addition to providers of products and services, another important player is the Open Geospatial Consortium, a nonprofit organization that develops standards for geospatial services, so customers don't get locked into a particular vendor. There is some compliance in this area, but it is still spotty.

As of last April, more than 250 products were registered with the OGC, but only 41 had been certified as compliant with the OpenGIS standard. And many of these are older versions of the software.

ESRI's most recent certification, for example, dates back to June 2001 and Intergraph's to 2003. The upshot is that if you are using four-year-old software you are in good shape, but not if you are buying the companies' latest versions. If you already have some GIS software or data in place, you want to make sure that the new software will correctly interpret and display the data.
The other point of integration is with non-GIS databases and applications, Hickey said.

'We anticipate interoperation between GIS and adjacent areas such as database management systems, enterprise resource planning, supply-chain management and overall enterprise IT infrastructures to continue increasing, along with competition from companies outside the GIS mainstream,' he said. 'Overall, the potential market for GIS technologies has only begun to be tapped.'

Drew Robb of Glendale, Calif., writes about IT.

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