GIS Goes Worldwide

Dropping costs and simplified usage makes GIS a mainstream tool

THE MODERN CITIZENS of the medieval, canal-dissected town
of Brugge, Belgium, must have thought it strange to see packs
of businesspeople following the dim green glow of cell phone
screens through the city at twilight. What they were
witnessing was a demonstration of one of the latest
innovations in geographic information systems technology by
Tele Atlas North America, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based digital data

BY DAINTRY DUFFY (Thanks to Bryant Ralston for sending this in)

The first night in Brugge, the Tele Atlas conference participants
divided into groups of 10 to 12 people, with each team given a
cell phone into which they entered a code. What followed was
dinner, entertainment and a tour of the city—guided by the
GPS-enabled cell phone. Instructions appeared on the screen,
telling the participants to follow different streets and alleys as
they made their way through the town. At certain destinations,
the teams would enter location-specific information, such as
the date on a 15th century guild house, to find out where the
next course of their meal could be found.

While capabilities like this may seem futuristic, the technology
and infrastructure to make it work are currently being rolled
out in both Europe and Japan, and will soon be available in the
United States. The FCC’s E911 mandate, which requires all
wireless carriers to be able to locate a majority of their 911
callers by the end of this year (most major carriers failed to
meet an October 2001 deadline) and to locate all callers by
December 2005, will produce a slew of new consumer
applications for GIS. But even though these natty technology
services get the most attention, it’s the innovative
enterprise-oriented GIS applications that are currently driving
the growth in the GIS sector.

Mapping GIS Growth
In just the past three years the GIS market has changed
radically, and a technology that was once considered too
specialized to fall within the domain of the IS department has
become just another enterprise technology, such as CRM or

The most important ingredient for GIS systems is data. Merely
knowing your coordinates isn’t of much use unless you’re on a
ship, but knowing what street you’re
on, where the nearest hotel is and the
fastest way to get there could be
invaluable. For years, unfortunately,
very little data of that type was publicly
available, and what did exist was
prohibitively expensive. But in the past
few years a whole industry has risen
around the collection and packaging of
GIS-useful data—from basic street
maps to census figures to business
locations. And all of it is available for
sale—cheap. That has greatly reduced
both the cost and time needed to get a
GIS application up and running.

GIS’s move into the mainstream has
also been aided by the fact that it’s now possible to easily
integrate it with other applications, thanks to
industry-standard databases and programming interfaces.

Not only do users no longer have to be specialists to work with
GIS, the users can be anywhere. The high-bandwidth needs of
image-intensive geospatial files used to necessitate that users
be close to the server, but the application can now be used in
a distributed environment and even with remote users through
the Web. "Within three years, GIS technology will be largely
invisible," predicts Dave Sonnen, a Blaine, Wash.-based
analyst with IDC Research (a sister company to CIO’s
publisher). "It’ll just be part of the infrastructure, and IS will be
handling geographic information just like integers and floating
point queries within a buffer."

GIS and the Business
According to Daratech, a Cambridge, Mass., market research
company, the total revenue from GIS software topped $1
billion in 2001, which represented a growth of 9 percent in
2001 over 2000. The biggest spenders on GIS are primarily in
the regulated sector: electric, gas and other utility companies
that use the technology to manage and maintain their
distribution pipeline networks.

Rubicon Oil, a Sacramento, Calif.-based fuel and lube service
company, uses the @Road Internet Location Manager to track
its drivers on their daily routes, improve productivity, and
monitor oil changes and maintenance records. These mundane
tasks have taken on increased importance since Sept. 11. In
the months following the terrorist attacks, Ron Quin, an
operations manager with Rubicon, was visited by both the FBI
and the California Highway Patrol looking for assurances that
his fuel tankers couldn’t be hijacked and used for terrorism.
Those worries became even closer to reality when at 9 one
night, not long after 9/11, the @Road application showed one
of the company’s drivers 40 to 60 miles off his route and out of
contact. Another driver close by checked on the situation and
discovered that the first driver had stopped for a meal. The
establishment of electronic parameters to monitor vehicle
travel is called "geofencing," and it has become an increasingly
critical application for GIS, particularly among fuel and
hazardous material transport companies looking to keep a
close eye on their shipments.

Homeland security issues have further heightened the demand
for GIS-enabled technologies. In April of 2002, Home Depot
cofounder and former CEO Bernie
Marcus pledged $3.9 million to equip a
new emergency response center for
the Center for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC), and a portion of the
donation was used to purchase
handheld GIS-enabled technology.
Currently, it’s a logistical challenge for
CDC investigators to track the exact
time when and location where
investigators take a sample. With technology provided by
Symbol Technologies and LinksPoint software, investigators
will attach a bar code to each blood sample taken from an ill
person or anthrax sample taken from a site, and scan it with
the handheld geopositioning device. Back at CDC
headquarters, that information will populate a database that
will show a complete record of each sample. "This will help
speed the CDC’s analysis and response in public health
emergencies where lives are threatened," says Charles
Stokes, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation in Atlanta.

GIS is also at work in more tranquil settings. The U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, D.C., is
implementing an enterprisewide GIS application from ESRI
across its many agencies. Similarly, the U.S. Forest Service
(USFS) uses the software to predict fires based on the
proximity to known fire-starting agents such as railway tracks,
where flying sparks can ignite brush, and major highways and
cities, where a tossed cigarette can start a blaze. Once a fire
breaks out, the USFS uses GIS to map the spread and predict
where it’ll go. Not only has GIS radically improved the business
processes across multiple agencies, it has already proved to
be a smart investment, according to Dennis Lytle, GIS program
manager for the service center agencies at USDA. "Our
benefit-cost analysis has shown that even with all the
expenses, we’ll find a payback in year of 2004," he says.

Picture Place
Eastman Kodak has discovered that an entirely new industry
has sprung up around the use of GIS and digital cameras. All of
Kodak’s professional cameras—which cost more than
$2,000—have a serial port built in that supports a GPS
receiver. That allows photographers not only to track the time
that a photo was taken but also the latitude and longitude.
Weekend warrior photographers, pilots and farmers alike have
found that they can build incredibly precise aerial maps either
for their own use or as a side business. Since digital cameras
can be used for infrared, it’s easy for users to create digital
maps with layers using software from companies like Canto.
Jay Kelbley, worldwide product manager for professional digital
cameras at Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., offers the example of a
farmer who could locate a specific area on a color map and
then go down a layer into infrared to look for water moisture
and crop infestations in his fields.

The Future of GIS
For businesses, the biggest story in the future of GIS may very
well be Web services. A number of smaller companies such as
Questerra in Charlottesville, Va., and Vicinity in Sunnyvale,
Calif., are providing companies with the ability to do complex
spatial queries with enterprise data through a Web interface.
Those companies will host your data and even combine it with
other third-party data resources if you want.

Service on Site
Another of the most important emerging areas within GIS will
be location-based services, which is the wireless application of
GIS ranging from onboard navigation
systems in cars to business uses like
petroleum prospecting and exploration.
Already, services such as OnStar’s
Virtual Advisor are being used to pull
traffic advisories to a vehicle as well as
less germane information such as
financial, entertainment and sports
news. In the future, the possibilities of
such systems are almost limitless. They could be used to
access a home electronic monitoring system and to track
where the kids are, if they happen to be wearing their GPS
bracelets. "Cell phones will become surveying devices," says
Jack Dangermond, president of Redlands, Calif.-based ESRI.
"As people move around they’ll know where they are relative
to other things: what kind of neighborhood you’re in, where a
certain kind of restaurant is or how to get somewhere."

As GIS becomes more fully integrated into cell phones, it’s likely
that users will also be able to geographically find out where
their friends are—a service that is already available in Japan.
This, of course, raises privacy and security issues that remain
unresolved. "This could be really grim, or if it helps people’s
lives, it could be pretty provident," says IDC’s Sonnen.
"Somewhere in between is the truth."

Daintry Duffy is a senior editor. She can be reached at
[email protected].

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