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Mapping the Outbreak of SARS

ESRI's Web site helps keep Hong Kong residents up to date and aids health officials in tracking and studying the disease.

May 27, 2003|James F. Peltz | Times Staff Writer

A California firm is helping Hong Kong health officials answer two basic questions about the SARS outbreak: Exactly where is it now, and where is it spreading?

ESRI, the leading designer of geographic software, has developed an Internet site that displays color-coded maps and data of Hong Kong and other regions with infections of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

The maps show increasing degrees of detail, zooming in on neighborhoods and then individual buildings with SARS-infected residents. It also spotlights buildings that once had a SARS problem but are now declared safe.

"It's constantly updated as new data comes in," said William Davenhall, manager of the health group for ESRI, based in Redlands, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

Although SARS has spread to more than two dozen countries, killing about 635 people and infecting nearly 8,000 more, most cases have been in Hong Kong and Beijing.

ESRI said the site (www.esri eng_main.htm) is a partnership of the company's Hong Kong office, which designed the program for free, and Hong Kong health authorities, who agreed to provide ESRI with data for their region.

The Web site's details about mainland China are sparse because China either would not or could not provide basic maps of its cities against which the SARS episodes could be plotted, Davenhall said.

The site's purpose is to keep Hong Kong residents -- along with their friends and relatives -- up to date on SARS' spread, and to help health officials and epidemiologists track and study the disease, Davenhall said.

"The public health authority has been doing disease-tracking for decades in Hong Kong," he said. "What's new [with SARS] is the fear and panic incited among the people who live there."

Sin Chung-kai, a member of Hong Kong's Legislative Council who represents the territory's technology industrial center, said in a statement that "I am glad to see Hong Kong get united" behind the Web site "and apply a concerted effort in combating SARS and in rebuilding the overall economy."

The site is an example of geographic information systems (GIS), a market that ESRI leads. The technology displays libraries of geographic, seismic and population information in digitized map form.

Similar to paper maps piled one on top of the other, they can be viewed and manipulated in various ways for analysis.

To track SARS, ESRI developed a base map of Hong Kong showing all of its streets, buildings, utility lines and other details.

The company takes government address data on SARS cases and "geo-codes" it with a computer to obtain the exact latitude and longitude of the infected sites, and then marks those spots on the base map, Davenhall said.

The site also displays statistics on SARS cases in each country, including the numbers of people infected and discharged from hospitals, and of those who have died.

The overall market for GIS software this year will reach nearly $1.2 billion, according to Daratech Inc., an industry research firm in Cambridge, Mass. ESRI has the biggest chunk of the market, with about 35%, the firm estimates. Its largest competitor is publicly held Intergraph Corp. of Huntsville, Ala.

Oil companies use the software to find promising energy fields. Government agencies employ GIS to track demographic and environmental trends, and retailers use the technology to find the best locations for new stores based on local traffic patterns. The Los Angeles Times creates maps using ESRI's technology.

The market for GIS software grew rapidly in the decade through 2001, but shrank slightly last year because of the financial problems in the telecommunications and utilities sectors, said Bruce Jenkins, Daratech's executive vice president.

Both industries "dramatically cut their IT [information technology] spending in many areas in 2002, and GIS was one that suffered," he said.

Telecom and utilities both use GIS mapping for tracking their lines and equipment, managing power disruptions and for planning expansion into new regions.

But Jenkins said the GIS market will grow again this year, by about 8%, because of increased contracts related to the war in Iraq, homeland security and the SARS epidemic.

President Jack Dangermond started ESRI in 1969 and owns the company. It began as the Environmental Systems Research Institute, using geography and mapping to analyze land-use projects.

Its sales now total about $400 million. ESRI employs more than 2,700 people, including 1,400 at its Redlands campus, and has customers in more than 220 countries.

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