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GIS goes worldwide

GIS goes worldwide

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.

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 provider. 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 U.S. Federal Communication Commission'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 ERP.

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 US$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 dduffy@cio.com.

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