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An online atlas helps Pennsylvania map its future.

/ April 30, 1999
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.

Online Cartography

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 a long-held belief that Pennsylvania's northern tier was short on installed fiber, procurement officers were prepared to budget millions for new fiber projects in that region. However, data collected for the atlas painted a different picture.

"Once we had the Technology Atlas, we were able to see that, in fact, the northern tier does have a lot of installed fiber, although it's from non-traditional service providers like utility companies. That completely changed the way we went about procuring," said Charlie Gerhards, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary of information technology. "We had less emphasis on the traditional service providers, and we were looking at partners like utility companies and others who already had the fiber in the ground."

And, during budget preparations last year, researchers used the atlas to show that by spending $7 million to finish Internet wiring to all public libraries, 95 percent of Pennsylvania's residents would be less than 20 minutes from a public Internet access location.

No Secrets Revealed

While confident that the data presented is accurate for planning purposes, Pennsylvania officials acknowledge that with competing companies sharing space in the atlas, strategic information such as spare fiber quantity, specific technologies in use or plans for future expansion is likely to be left off its pages.

"We realize that beneath the information on the site, users may not see information that is proprietary," Paese said. "What we've really tried hard to say to businesses is that as other companies grow around you, that will help your business ultimately, particularly in regions that are hard hit. And we've been pretty surprised at the willingness of the companies to talk."

OIT officials plan to spend $150,000 a year to maintain and update the atlas and the 12,000 files occupying its database. A CD-ROM version will be released annually for those who don't have access to the Internet. Gerhards said future enhancements to the atlas will depend on feedback received from users later this year.

A free executive brief describing the development and capabilities of the Technology Atlas is available by calling 717/705-4636.

Tom Byerly is a writer in Elk Grove, Calif. Email