Think of an atlas, and the image of a dusty, oversized book perched atop a library shelf likely comes to mind. Filled with maps, it was the key to many a grade-school report. Using the Internet, today's student geographers have a wealth of information at their fingertips. And you should see what the adults have to play with.
Tom Paese, Pennsylvania secretary of the Governor's Office Administration and Charles Gerhards, Pennsylvania deputy secretary of information technology.
In Pennsylvania, officials with the Governor's Office of Information Technology (OIT) took cartography a step further last December, when they unveiled the Pennsylvania Technology Atlas, an online program that allows users to create GIS-based maps detailing technology resources ranging from installed fiber to telemedicine facilities.
Classroom to Boardroom
An offshoot of Gov. Tom Ridge's $132 million Link-to-Learn educational technology initiative, the atlas was originally created to track existing technology infrastructure so state grants weren't wasted duplicating IT. By knowing which schools were located near existing fiber or wireless networks, officials could earmark Link-to-Learn funds for other areas, those lacking high-speed infrastructure. Since then, the atlas has evolved into a valuable economic development tool.
Officials quickly realized that putting the information on a Web site would give bandwidth-seeking public and private organizations an easy way of viewing the expanding infrastructure. With a potential hit on their hands, officials expanded the database to include hospitals, libraries, utilities and government agencies.
"Technology is generally driving a lot of economies, and in Pennsylvania, we believe we have a lot to capitalize on," said Tom Paese, secretary of the Governor's Office of Administration. "We have to attract more and more businesses; we have to retain those that are spinning out of the universities, and if the atlas allows them to easily identify where capabilities in technology exist, the better we're able to build jobs and retain them."
Developed by the University of Pittsburgh's School of Information Sciences using a Link-to-Learn grant of $600,000, the atlas contains more than 400 million bytes of information, enough to fill 10,000 printed pages. Teams led by university educators in each of seven state regions collected data using local surveys and interviews. The teams continuously update data from more than 10,000 telecommunications companies, universities, local governments, school districts and other public and private organizations that own, rent or lease technology assets.
Beginning with a base map of Pennsylvania showing county borders, users can create customized displays by selecting mapping layers that include geographical features, organizations and telephone and utility companies. A user wanting to display public high schools and their location relative to Sprint's fiber network would select the "Public High School" and "Sprint" mapping layers from a frame along the left side of the mapping window. Zoom buttons allow the user to display the selected mapping criteria over the entire commonwealth or focus in on a highlighted area. The resulting map can be downloaded and printed.
The geographical context of the map can be user-defined, allowing the display of technology resources by school district, congressional district, area code or ZIP code. The list of organizations that can be displayed include public and private universities and state agencies. The fiber networks of local utility companies and such telecommunications heavyweights as AT&T, Bell Atlantic, GTE and MCI can be displayed to show their proximity to any organization listed.
The atlas' map-generating tool is supported by links to the online Link-to-Learn database that drives the project. A technology atlas snapshot of the past year's data is being developed, which will allow users to compare data from year to year and observe trends in infrastructure growth.
A Sharper Image
Pennsylvania officials turned to the atlas recently for help in forming a procurement plan for the state's annual $80 million telecommunications system. Based on