Spatial Surfing

The first crop of mapping tools for the World Wide Web allows people to run simple queries. Meanwhile, aWeb-based geographic information system may be coming soon.

by / June 30, 1996
Fort Worth, Texas, wants to put as much information at the fingertips of its citizens as it can. The city government is committed to making tax-supported information as accessible as possible. Unfortunately, the need for public access rubs up against limited resources, making it hard to honor that pledge.

"We have a lot of individuals who come in and ask for a zoning map or other types of geographic information," commented Tex Norwood, the city's GIS coordinator. "While their needs are important, we have to stop what we're doing and see what they want." The result for Norwood and the city? Lost productivity.

That's why Norwood is excited about using the World Wide Web as a tool for allowing the public to access the city's geographically-based information. He envisions allowing customers to browse the city's database of maps and geographic information from computers in his office or from the user's home. "With the Web," said Norwood, "information sharing is just going to be a lot easier."

Like a hurricane in June, the World Wide Web has, in the past 12 to 18 months, come out of nowhere and blown apart the computing landscape in the United States. While the average citizen might not notice much difference, business, education and government workers have seen radical changes in how information can
be presented and shared. Suddenly, any computer, irrespective of its operating system or microchip, can access a wealth of information in the form of text, graphics and even video and audio.

Besides reading useful and not-so-useful information on the millions of pages that make up the Web, people can also surf for real estate, new cars, hotels and a slew of other products and services. For governments, the Web has opened up a new way to publish and distribute information to the masses.

Thanks to the Web, public access will never be quite the same. Not surprisingly, maps also have begun to appear on the Web. The first examples have been static. But now it's possible to link the HTML (hypertext markup language) format with map features, allowing users to run simple queries and making maps on the Web much more interactive.

Since the beginning of the year, a number of desktop mapping and GIS vendors have introduced a variety of products that allow people with Web browsers to view maps at various
levels of detail or conduct a certain amount of spatial analysis -- a core GIS function.

"Users can do almost anything they can do with standard GIS," said Chris Wemmers, senior product manager for Strategic Mapping Inc.(SMI), in describing the capabilities of his company's new software for the Web. SMI, producers of desktop mapping software and geographic information, has introduced Map/SDK, a Web-enabling toolkit for generating maps over the Web. According to Wemmers, Map/SDK can create Web pages that allow users to zoom in on sections of maps and to run queries, such as finding the location of stores, offices or facilities.

Similarly, Genasys II Inc. unveiled what it touts as the industry's first full-function GIS interface to the Web. The Spatial Web Broker provides a gateway to Genasys' GIS products so that people with Web browsers, such as Netscape's Navigator, can perform queries based on selections made from various menus.

For example, users can select the type of map layer they wish to see -- hydrography, railroads, roads, landmarks, physical terrain -- and choose the zoom factor they want, then submit a query and view the results. The software can create maps that provide detailed directions from one destination to the next, or highlight a location when an address is entered as a query.

Both the Spatial Web Broker and SMI's Map/SDK use a process that converts a spatial query into an HTML command which then retrieves a preprinted map. The map appears as an image, known as a Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) file, which is retrieved from the Web server the same way a Web page is pulled up when a user clicks on a portion of text that has been formatted with HTML.

According to Keith Duncan, a webmaster for Genasys II, the key is creating and displaying the GIS maps as quickly as possible, because most people don't like to wait more than a few seconds for a response. But is all this GIS? Some see it as nothing more than rudimentary mapping.

"There's no real GIS on the Web today," said Ian Nixon, senior marketing manager for Intergraph Corp. "You are just looking at preformatted maps that are being published on the Web." The problem, according to Nixon, is that GIS is a database technology while the Web just deals with documents and images.

Peter Moran, product marketing manager for ESRI, also calls the current crop of geographic applications on the Web just mapping, not GIS. "With the Web you just get one mouse click to make a query," he said. "You can't draw polygons or circles, which require two mouse clicks." The result, he added, is limited functionality.

Moran did point out that some Web sites use check boxes (or, in the case of Genasys' Spatial Web Browser, menu selections) to allow a user to submit a query with values. "But what you are getting is predefined answers," he said. "The current solutions lack high-level analytical or modeling capabilities, all of which make GIS so powerful."

If your agency or department is used to working with high-end GIS, will you have any use for today's Web-enabled mapping tools? Not likely, according to Moran and Nixon. "Real GIS users need the ability to direct a query into a database, which can respond with intelligent graphics containing associated attribution," said Nixon.

One government official who agrees with that assessment is Raphael Sussman, GIS manager for Scarborough, Ont. "We get such detailed and varied requests from our departments that we would never be able to retrieve answers to queries in realtime over the Internet. The graphics side of our GIS alone is 28 gigabytes," said Sussman.

But while Sussman's department might not be able to perform GIS over the Web, that doesn't mean the city won't take advantage of it. By September, Scarborough hopes to make certain maps available on its Web site for public consumption.

For example, the city's economic development office publishes a book of all the vacant industrial lots in the city. The book is essentially reproductions of city maps highlighting the locations of the lots. Sussman plans to develop a page on the city's Web site that developers can use to search for digital maps containing the same information. The city can update the maps on a weekly basis, ensuring that users are viewing current information. "It won't be anything high-level," said Sussman about the mapping service. People who have browsers will be able to ask to see all the vacant lots in a certain area of the city. Those areas will be preselected by the city and available as GIF images. "Since we've anticipated the user's query, we'll have an answer in the form of a map ready for viewing," he pointed out. The same technique will be used for people seeking information on the location of hotels, motels and recreation sites.

For some government officials, GIS is a tool for the masses that's been held back from its full potential because of the high cost of access and the complexity of the software. That's why mapping on the Web is so appealing to local governments. "It's exciting to us from the standpoint that it's not going to require an expensive software package to allow people to view our maps," said Norwood.

Public access to Fort Worth's maps via the Web is beneficial for three reasons, according to Norwood. First, it broadens access to government information. Second, it reduces staff time devoted to customer service. Third, it reduces the taxpayer's cost for using the information.

"We have private companies who come in and buy our maps and then turn around and resell them to the public for a profit," mentioned Norwood. "That's fine, if the companies want to do that, but I don't think it's good for citizens to pay for something they have already paid taxes for."

Government workers can also benefit from mapping on the Web. The fastest growing aspect of the Net are intranets: Web pages that exist solely within an organization while electronic firewalls of software protect the information from outside use or tampering. Fort Worth is in the process of building its own intranet, and Norwood sees it as an opportunity to allow each department to have its own piece of GIS. "We have workers who only need to look at maps or run queries once a week, or even less," he said.

For those casual users who don't have time to learn how to run GIS software, the Web is a great solution. For example, the election season places a high demand for maps with street names, housing numbers and other voting information, but their use occurs just once a year. Using a browser, politicians can easily get the information they need in minutes by themselves, versus the hours that professional GIS analysts must commit to perform the work for them.

Intranets can cut GIS computing costs in other ways as well. Workers will only need a browser to access the Web page where the city's maps can be queried. They won't need full-function GIS software on their computer and all the required horsepower, memory and storage to run the application.

The city's computer programmers and networking analysts won't have
to invest time and energy trying to network and program computers
for GIS. Thanks to the browser
and the open protocols of the Internet, compatibility issues are no longer problems.

One of the first mapping applications on the World Wide Web began operation nearly two years ago at the Social Sciences Data Center and GIS Laboratory at the University of Virginia Library. Paul F. Bergen developed the application using 1992 TIGER/Line files from the U.S. Department of Census, Arc/Info from ESRI and NCSA's Mosaic browser.

According to Bergen, who is coordinator of the Instructional Computing Group and Social Sciences at Harvard University, the purpose of the project was to help train students on how to create maps. The key to making the project work, he found, was to simplify everything as much as possible. "To work with mapping on the Internet," he said, "simplification is the rule."

Today, simplicity is still a key success factor, but already demand is increasing for some of the sophisticated capabilities that exist in mainstream GIS technology. One way to deliver that capability lies with Java, Sun Microsystem's software programming language for the Web.

Java is an application development tool that allows software developers to write small programs that can move from computer to computer over the Internet. When a person uses a browser to view a Web page, the Java application, known as an applet, is launched, allowing an interaction to occur. That interaction might be an animated sequence or the retrieval of some information from a database.

Some GIS vendors are looking at Java as a way to enhance how people use GIS on the Web. ESRI is working with Java so that when a user browses a Web page, Java presents an interface that replicates the one used with Arc/Info. "Java could give users greater usability and control of our software over the Web," said Moran.

Intergraph is also examining ways to improve the use of GIS over the Web, although the company declined to discuss its strategy. "We're taking the Web very seriously," said Nixon, who believes the greatest opportunities for GIS will be found with intranet applications. He mentioned advances in display techniques, compression technologies and certain formats that can wrap attribute information with vector data, as some of the signs that GIS could move closer to the Web in the near future.

Like so much else about the Web, these developments are coming soon. When asked if these technologies will be available in a few years, Nixon replied, "No, it's just months away."

For more information, contact Raphael Sussman, GIS manager, 416/396-4141.

*A number of sites on the World Wide Web provide examples of interactive mapping. Genasys maintains a site that uses its Web Broker tool at .
Strategic Mapping is working with Oracle to develop a site that runs Map/SDK. For more information, check Oracle's main site at .
Keep up with Intergraph's GIS and Web developments by checking their home page at: .
ESRI also has a home page at . In addition, ESRI provides links to a host of other GIS-related Web sites at: .
According to Peter Moran, some of the choice selections include:
* U.S. Census Bureau . Maintains maps from a special binary version of the TIGER line files.
* University of California, Davis, Information Center for the Environment . Users can query information regarding California's natural resources.
* Xerox PARC Map Viewer . A well-known example of map creation over the Web.
* University of Virginia . Paul Bergen's interactive mapping site of Virginia's counties. Maps can be downloaded in Arc/Info export format.