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The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Software That Marries Maps With Sophisticated Data Tables

March 08, 1995|RICHARD O'REILLY

Location, location, location! That may be the traditional mantra of real estate agents, but it isn't only those in the property business who might need sophisticated information about a particular geographic area.

If you have a mail-order business, for example, or keep track of liquor permit requests for a civic watchdog organization or want to know whether a certain franchise is really a good opportunity in your area, you could profit from a type of software known as a GIS, or geographic information system.

GIS software marries tables of data, such as a customer sales list, with demographic information from the Census Bureau and other sources to give you a detailed picture of exactly what is going on and where. And unlike simple street-mapping programs, GIS programs actually find the latitude and longitude coordinates of a given address. It is that process, typically called geocoding or address matching, that allows addresses to be compared to other geographic data.

The software thus enables you to see all kinds of relationships that may not have been clear before: Maybe your product sells three times better in ZIP codes where the median age is under 35 than in areas where it is over 45, for example. Or you might discover that thousands of addresses on the mailing list you bought don't really exist.

Unfortunately, GIS software in the past has been rather hard to use, and the demographic data needed to make it worthwhile has often been frightfully expensive.

That is now changing: A new entrant in GIS software, Maptitude 3.0 ($395, Caliper Corp., Newton, MA; (617) 527-4700), has radically altered GIS economics by including demographic data that in the past would have cost tens of thousands of dollars. And the existing players, including ArcView 2.0, ($995, Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., Redlands, CA; (800) 447-9778), Atlas GIS 3.0 for Windows ($495, Strategic Mapping Inc., Santa Clara, CA; (800) 472-6277) and MapInfo 3.0 ($1,295, MapInfo Corp., Troy, NY; (800) 327-8627) are all increasing performance while cutting prices and including more data.

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You won't find any of these programs in software stores--they are sold only direct by their publishers, though Caliper does intend to put Maptitude into retail distribution. And it's important to keep in mind that with the exception of Maptitude, the purchase price of the software is only the beginning of a GIS investment. You'll also need to spend anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars on local demographic data--far more if your business is truly nationwide.

Both MapInfo and Strategic Mapping sell their own packaged data to go with their programs, and they market data from a variety of other data providers in formats compatible with their programs. Environmental Systems Research Institute also sells some data of its own. But as the leader in high-end GIS software with its ARC/INFO product, ESRI has created a marketplace for other companies that specialize in various kinds of mapping analysis data. ESRI includes an excellent data catalogue with ArcView that describes the various competing data products available for its program.

Caliper Corp., which is just entering the desktop GIS market from its position specializing in transportation analysis, decided to bundle data it had already acquired, mostly from low-cost governmental sources, in an effort to break GIS out of the niche category.

Demographic data and street location and address data originates with the Census Bureau. The demographic data is as good as it gets, but the federal street mapping data, called TIGER line files, suffers from gaps and errors that make it frustrating to use. MapInfo, which publishes a number of excellent sales brochures that illustrate how its program and data can be used in various businesses, makes a good case for the value of its cleaned-up version of street-mapping files, because it allows a much higher percentage of accurate matches than the raw TIGER files.

The four programs are quite different from one another, but at their core they perform many of the same tasks. All produce maps from map data boundary files. The maps can be zoomed in or out, but, except for Maptitude, detail will be lacking at high magnification unless additional higher-resolution data files are purchased.

All of the programs can do theme maps of geographic data by displaying matching areas in various colors, densities, patterns and proportional symbol sizes.

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