Geospatial for the cheap

Look out GIS vendors: Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others are paving the way for low-cost GIS

ENTERPRISING: Alabama Homeland Security director James Walker oversaw the effort to customize an enterprise version of Google Earth, resulting in 'Virtual Alabama.'

Rick Steele

You may have many things to worry about in your hectic day-to-day existence. One thing you won't have to sweat: Where Lawrence, Kan., software architect Tim Hibbard is this very minute. That's because he built a Web page (www.timhibbard.com/wherestim/) that maps precisely where he is located at any given moment. It updates every 15 seconds.

By day, Hibbard works for Engraph, a software company specializing in location tracking systems. But he needed very little specialized technology to build this site ' he found almost everything he used at little or no cost: He keeps a Sprint-Nextel cellular phone attached to him at all times, and the phone picks up his coordinates from Global Positioning System satellites. Cloudberry software, mobile-phone software from Air-Track Inc., packages the coordinates in Extensible Markup Language messages, which are then relayed to a server. A server script parses the messages for the coordinates, pulls down a map from Google Inc. and charts Tim's location.

While the exact location of Hibbard himself might not interest many people, it's worth taking note of how easily and inexpensively he assembled the tracking system. Thanks to the Internet and Web-based mapping applications from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, users are finding that they can easily map all sorts of things that would have been impossible a decade ago, at least without expensive geographic information systems (GIS).

And thanks to creative add-ons from developers and small Web 2.0 start-up companies, as well as the creation of volunteer-led interoperability standards for hooking everything together, some pretty creative Web maps are being made. Once Hibbard set up his Where's Tim Web site, it was a small step to employing other Web applications. For instance, you can now easily check his site for the weather wherever Hibbard is (thanks to WeatherBug). You can get directions to his location. You can get a satellite map of Hibbard's whereabouts. You can get a Really Simple Syndication feed.

'Most people think visually and think spatially,' said John-Henry Gross, product manager for geospatial-software company MetaCarta Inc. Only lately has this tendency played out with work in computers. An influx of Web-based mapping and pervasive GPS data 'has brought location to the masses,' he said.

And don't be fooled. These new tools can be used for far more than personal tracking. They can open up a wealth of possibilities for government to share information and inform the citizenry.

Global concerns

By now you might have become acquainted with sites such as Google Maps, by, say, trying to get directions to a friend's house. Or you might have surfed around Microsoft Virtual Earth or Google Earth, and picked out your own home. Both tools stitch together satellite imagery of the Earth, taken by government and commercial services, so that users can zoom in on an area of interest and take a closer look.

On the surface, such services offer little that is new. Mapping software has long enjoyed such capabilities. But the fact that they are on the Web, and can be reused through openly available application programming interfaces and data formats, means that they are bringing geospatial capabilities to an entire group of people who never before had access to such capabilities. And such imagery can be used for far more than viewing a piece of land. Pointers to additional data can be overlaid on such maps, giving users a quick view of how a large set of data is geographically dispersed.

The state of Alabama is an early adopter of this approach. With a grant from the Homeland Security Department, Alabama has created a Web portal that first responders, county planners and others can use to get detailed geographic views, overlaid with pertinent information.

'Virtual Alabama,' overseen by state Homeland Security director James Walker, uses an enterprise version of Google Earth that was customized to show only maps of the state, divided up by county.

'It's not GIS. GIS is the analyst. What we were looking at is how to display the data we have got and make it available to everyone,' said Norven Goddard, assistant director of science and technology for the Alabama DHS (on detail from the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command), who put together the Virtual Alabama program.

'When we sell Google Earth to the enterprise, there are two basic software components,' said Mike Evanoff, federal sales engineer for the product. 'One is called Fusion. It takes all the data you have and crunches it into the Google format and dumps out a 'flyable globe,' the final dataset delivered to users. The second part of the software is the Google Earth Server, that takes that flyable globe and serves it up to the clients.'

It was the algorithm driving the fusion software, the mechanism for converting raw data into a visualization tool, that the state Homeland Security Department hungered for, Goddard said.

'The governor was trying to find out what resources he had in his state in the geospatial arena,' he said. 'We didn't know what we had from an overall level. Every time something came up someone would stand up and say, 'I've got the data.' Well, if you got the data from that individual, first of all you had to have something to display it on. ... Another aspect was that when the data was taken, some of the data was bad. We experienced all of this with Katrina ' it really brought it home to us.'

The state and the software company worked together to devise an affordable cost structure that would allow maximum flexibility for the government to make information available to users while providing Google with a replicable business model.

'When we first talked to [Google] about having the fusion system behind our firewall, they said, 'OK, when you do that you've got a cost for each of the clients that you attach,' ' Goddard said.

After further discussions, the company hit upon a more affordable solution: 'As long as their users are coming to their server to look at their data, there's no licensing,' Evanoff said. 'If their users connect out to Google to look at [our] data, then they have to have a license.'

Total cost to the state was about $150,000, all of which was paid for by federal DHS grant money, split 80/20 between the counties and the statewide initiative.
Alabama's 67 counties and one Native American tribe collect their own imagery and other geographic information, which normally they sell to interested customers such as developers. To convince them to populate the database, the state gave cooperating counties access to the Google visualization software.

Although the initial effort was aimed at just loading in aerial photography owned by the counties, early on the counties asked to submit other text-based data that could be geographically placed, such as land-ownership records, fire houses, fireplugs, cameras on the interstates, and computer-aided drawings for schools and other government buildings.

The state has had Virtual Alabama up and running for less than six months and already has more than 500 users. There is a technical threshold ' the state's Fusion server can only handle up to about 250 concurrent users. Beyond that, the government will have to add another server and a load balancer. But when a client hits the server with a data request, the information caches on the desktop computer; technically, they're not a concurrent user until they go back to the server to grab data covering another area. So the concern arises in the context of a disaster or other event, when many people would be requesting data covering the same area.

So far, the site has served in a variety of capacities. When a tornado hit the state on March 1, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Guard and other organizations helping in the clean-up were able to connect to the site and find useful data on gas pipelines, property owner names and other pertinent information.

Like Google, Microsoft offers easily-accessible satellite photography as a Web service, one that can be customized by agencies. The service is known as Virtual Earth. It is free for casual users and agencies can license usage for heavier use.
The biggest government users are those who have information in GIS systems that need to go to a wider audience, noted Kevin Adler, the geospatial solutions specialist for Microsoft Federal. The GIS data can be layered over Virtual Earth, using a free Microsoft service called MapCruncher. Then it can be accessed by outside parties using only a Web site, meaning that outside users don't have to download GIS viewers.

Adler admits that Virtual Earth doesn't have the sophistication of a full-fledged GIS system. Still, companies such as ESRI offer many ways of ingesting and analyzing data in ways that would be difficult to do from scratch, Adler noted. 'Instead of an agency starting with a blank sheet of paper, they can use our base map to layer their data on top,' he said.

The new services also offer a freedom not typically seen in the GIS field. 'Traditionally, you have had to choose a platform, because you had to code to it,' Gross said. Now, efforts are underway to standardize the formats for geospatial data and representations, thanks to the efforts of volunteer work going on at Open Source Geospatial Foundation (which manages the popular OpenLayers.org site) and through the Open Geospatial Consortium.

Beyond the horizon

While placing pointers on a map or satellite imagery can be useful, the Web mapping community is working towards generating more sophisticated techniques of mapping data, ones that could propel Web-based mapping into the organization. 'There are all these really cool mapping services out there, but the question is how do you use them effectively?' Gross asked.

Take, for example, the work being done on GeoRSS, a volunteer-led effort to create an RSS feed for items with latitude and longitude coordinates. By providing a set of coordinates to a feed, software can map recent events automatically.

Through GeoRSS, government data is getting out to a further community. The European Commission developed a program to model incoming tsunamis, using a U.S. Geological Survey GeoRSS feed of earthquake events. 'Probable tsunamis are published in a GeoRSS alert feed, which includes the extent of the possible wave in hour increments, represented as a GeoRSS polygon,' e-mailed Mikel Maron, a computer programmer who helped develop the project.

Although still young, GeoRSS has generated a lot of interest in the geomapping community. Yahoo has included support for GeoRSS in Yahoo Pipes, which lets users create software mashups by fusing different types of Web services and news feeds. Both Google Earth and Microsoft's Live Maps service recently started supporting GeoRSS as well.

After hammering out specifications for providing feeds for specific points, the volunteer group is developing specifications for covering complex coordinates, such as lines and Universal Transverse Mercator (a grid-based coordinate system for describing locations on Earth), said Raj Singh, a contributor to GeoRSS and the director of interoperability programs for the OGC.

One agency interested in these complex coordinates is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is considering using GeoRSS to format its own tsunami feeds.

The agency's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center already has a Web map showing recent tsunami activities, using the Generic Mapping Tools, or GMT, an open-source collection of Cartesian datasets and software for manipulating geographic data. The office also produces tsunami bulletins, computer-generated plain-text documents with information on magnitude, origin time and geographic region of an earthquake, as well as estimated tsunami arrival times and measurements of tsunami waves.

In December 2004, when a series of tsunamis swept across the shores of the Indian Ocean, the center itself was deluged with requests for more information. 'It became clear that we should syndicate our bulletins as feeds so that anyone can get them without having to sign up for an e-mail list,' e-mailed Brian Shiro, a geophysicist for the center. Shiro came up with an RSS feed for the information. The agency is now experimenting with a GeoRSS feed, with the geospatial coordinates.

'One can tie geographic information to any RSS feed. This allows people to see where the earthquakes in our bulletins occurred,' Shiro noted. He added that the center could make use of the GeoRSS' ability to define a radius, which could allow them to show the areas around an earthquake that should be warned of an upcoming tsunami.

Commercial products can also take up the slack in helping bring sophistication to public Web tools.

MetaCarta Inc., for instance, long a purveyor of tools for the GIS market, has adopted its wares for the new Web geomapping tools.

MetaCarta offers a product that assigns geospatial locations to unstructured text documents, namely by hunting for addresses and other contextual clues in the document itself. Although the company has a partnership with ESRI and other GIS vendors, in the past year, it has noticed an increasing number of government customers using the company's products in conjunction with Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth.

The advantage of going with MetaCarta is the automated analysis it brings to the processes of geomapping.

'While a human can [geocode] 100 documents a day, our software can do a million documents in one day,' Gross said.

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