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The Cutting Edge

Mapping Finds Its Way to the Mainstream

New, Cheaper Software Is Widening Information Terrain for Businesses, Individuals

April 26, 1999|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — A Portland, Ore., group intent on preserving the fragile ecology of the verdant rain forest that hugs the Northwest coastline has turned to an obscure branch of computer science to help it with the task.

Taking information from dozens of government agencies and environmental groups in the United States and Canada, Ecotrust has created computerized maps on its Web site (http://www.inforain.org) that graphically depict shrinking wetlands over time, the pressure of development and the condition of the wildlife.

A small rural group fighting a development project or interested in restoring a salmon stream can click on any one of 1,200 watersheds in the region to get a status report on endangered salmon species in the area, says Mike Merten, who helped develop the maps for Ecotrust.

Merten is one of a small tribe of 5,000 or so computer experts who build geographic information systems, libraries of information that use maps instead of the alphabet or subject categories to organize and store information. The systems allow information to be viewed and analyzed in an intuitive, visual way.

GIS has been around for decades. Oil companies use software from Redlands-based Environmental Systems Research Institute, the leader in the field, to turn seismic data into maps that show promising oil fields. Blockbuster Video uses the technology to find ideal locations for its new video stores.

But until recently computer mapping has been an expensive tool for large corporate and government organizations. The basic software typically starts at $1,200 and the basic computer data required for analysis cost thousands more. Most software requires a GIS expert such as Merten to translate the information into color-coded maps.

All that is beginning to change, however, spurred by simpler, cheaper software and data, as well as the rapid growth of the Internet.

Microsoft Adds GIS to Toolbox

Recognizing the mass-market potential of GIS, for example, Microsoft will release in June a new product called MapPoint 2000 which, for just $109, includes a detailed map of the entire country along with census data about household size, income, ethnicity and even age. It's designed so users can easily find any address in the country, plop a map into a Microsoft Word document or transfer data to a map from a spreadsheet.

The goal is to make computer mapping as common and as widely used a tool as the spreadsheet and the desktop database, says John Betz, a Microsoft group product planner.

A restaurant owner could, for example, take a list of customers he keeps on a spreadsheet and simply drag and drop it onto MapPoint. The owner could then add demographic data and information about real estate in the area to help select the location best suited for his clientele.

"There is a potentially huge group of small-business users this will address," says David Sonnen, an analyst with IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based market research company.

Microsoft is significantly undercutting its competitors by including detailed street information on the entire country, for which GIS professionals previously paid database providers $350 per county.

"Therein lies the power of Microsoft," says Bernie Szukalski, product manager at competitor ESRI. "They sell in such high volume that they can negotiate costs that are good for the consumer."

Still, Szukalski and other competitors say Microsoft's entry into the market with a cheap, simple product is a good thing because it will introduce many more people to the power of computer mapping.

"We welcome Microsoft in the market," says John Cavalier, chief executive at MapInfo, a Troy, N.Y.-based GIS software company. "They will expand the market for us."

Once users are accustomed to viewing data on a map, Cavalier says, they are more likely to upgrade to sophisticated GIS software that can, for example, handle larger amounts of data for hundreds of users.

Cavalier says the fastest-growing market for GIS software is among large electric utilities and telecommunications companies that want a single, constantly updated map of all their telephone poles, underground wires and other infrastructure on a Web site where engineers, planners and even repair people can quickly get the latest information with just a browser.

Wireless companies, for example, have developed detailed maps that include trees, buildings and land elevations. When customers complain about poor cellular phone service from a certain location, that spot can be pinpointed on the map. A quick look by a trained eye makes it clear where the next cell tower should go or how existing towers should be tuned to improve service.

As the available data become more sophisticated, including such information as the propensity of the people in a particular ZIP Code to buy high-fashion goods, for example, marketing companies have begun to use computer mapping to fine-tune their advertising campaigns.

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