A GIS program for the rest of us

Maptitude 5.0 is surprisingly easy-to-use GIS mapping software for the non-GIS user.

Maptitude 5.0 product shot

Pros: Easy-to-use GIS for non-GIS users
Cons: Error messages if you overload the software by zooming around too quickly
Performance: A-
Features: A
Ease of use: A+
Value: B+
Price: $495

Geographic information systems are clearly one of the great innovations of our time. When integrated with data, GIS presents information visually so that trends and problems that used to befuddle are grasped in a glance. But working with most GIS programs takes a lot of time, study and patience. GIS packages often are filled with baffling file extensions, complicated vectors and what appear to be algebraic formulas.

So I was happily surprised by the Maptitude 5.0 mapping software. On the box it says “Maptitude makes it easy for you to produce maps,” and there’s no false advertising here. This is GIS software for the rest of us, people who need powerful mapping software but lack an advanced degree in engineering.

But don’t think this is a lightweight product; au contraire, Maptitude is a full-fledged GIS. It lets you map many layers of data and integrate these maps with the data in spreadsheets and databases. You can layer, color and layout your map data almost anyway you want.

The difference between Maptitude and similar products is that it is shockingly easy to use. After a few hours with most GIS packages I’m ready to throw myself on the couch, a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in one hand, TV remote in the other. Not so with Maptitude. It’s chock full of features designed to make the GIS experience almost, dare I say it, easy. The 534-page guide book Caliper included with the software also was nicely written and answered all my questions.

We inserted the disk into the CD drive of our Dell Optiplex GX280 desktop PC running Windows XP and waited for the familiar whoosh of a spinning CD. The data-intensive mapping software took about 20 minutes to download, but that’s not all that unusual for mapping software.

Don’t throw away the Maptitude CD after you load it onto your computer (not that you would); you’ll need to access the data that resides on it for the tutorial.

The user’s guide provides an overview of Maptitude basics that was very helpful. It shows you how to create a map and layer features on top of it: cities, highways, water features, railroads. You can start integrating data and drawing layered GIS maps right away.

A toolbar at the top of the screen showed a lot of intuitive icons, which were easy to follow. Click on an icon that looked like a stack of papers, for example, and Maptitude opens a dialog box that lets you add, delete and hide map layers such as landmarks and rivers. Or you can narrow columns in a spreadsheet using an icon with arrows pointing in or widen them with an icon with arrows pointing out. The user’s guide even lists all the icons on the back of the book with a short explanation of them.

You even save your map as a file with an easy-to-remember extension, .map. How hard is that?

The guide shows you how to map customer and sales data by integrating dBase and Excel files. It shows you how to color-code counties by sales amounts, with counties that have more than a million dollars in sales colored in deep pink. Don’t like pink? You can create your own color schemes by clicking on a small icon of a painter’s palette.

Maptitude employs a lot of the mapping and navigating conventions we’ve all been using for the Web and other applications. A spyglass with a plus sign, for example, lets you zoom in and a spyglass with a minus sign lets you zoom out. Click on a small hand icon and you can push the map around the screen. Again, by using these familiar mapping conventions, it eases the non-GIS user into working with a real GIS.

I did get an odd error message when I tried to zoom out too fast: “Sorry, the program referenced memory illegally,” but no such errors occurred when I slowed down a bit.

I put aside the users’ guide and decided to noodle around on my own. I mapped the state of Arkansas, where Maptitude found my grandmother’s house in about a second. You click “Find,” type in an address and it finds the address in a second or so.

Maptitude can also open maps in ESRI ArcMap if you have a copy of ArcGIS installed and registered on your computer. A built-in database engine lets Maptitude access data stored in Access, DB2, Excel, Informix, Oracle, SAS and Sybase formats. The software also lets you import Census Bureau TIGER/Line files.

Maptitude 5.0 is available for single or enterprise users and runs on Windows 2000, Windows XP or Vista. It comes loaded with the latest U.S. street data, 2000 Census demographic, social, economic and housing profile data and landmarks, plus world geography. The address information is limited to the U.S.

If you are a public servant (or just a map enthusiast) who needs to create GIS maps to mark trends, demographics or events, but you didn’t exactly ace algebra, Maptitude 5.0 would be a worthy addition to your software shelf.

Caliper Corp., 617-527-4700, www.caliper.com

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