Computer Maps Pop Up All Over The Map

A major earthquake rocks Los Angeles. Phones are out; fires rage. In an emergency bunker under City Hall, engineers enter data about the quake's precise location and magnitude into a computerized mapping system of the city. Almost instantly, the program updates the map, color-coding the fault lines and variations in soil types and distinguishing thousands of buildings, bridges, and roads by the methods and materials used to build them. Engineers zoom in on the hardest-hit spots, as the computer directs emergency crews along unobstructed routes.

Science fiction? In fact, Los Angeles plans to spend $30 million over the next five years on so-called geographic information systems (GIS) to help manage the earthquake threat and other urban problems. By combining digital maps with data bases, these systems can quickly generate graphic displays of everything from traffic patterns to the spread of disease. As cheaper, more powerful systems appear, sales of GIS hardware, software, and services may reach $4 billion worldwide by 1995, up from $2 billion in 1992, says John C. Antenucci, president of GIS consultant PlanGraphics Inc. in Frankfort, Ky.

Indeed, computer mapping technology is moving well beyond its traditional uses of helping utilities and government agencies keep track of power lines and natural resources. By combining data on demographics and traffic patterns, PepsiCo Inc. uses GIS to help pinpoint the best locations for new Pizza Hut and Taco Bell outlets. Federal Express Corp. uses it to place its drop boxes and estimate the number of trucks and planes it needs during peak periods. And many other companies are finding that a $15,000 investment in desktop GIS can do the number-crunching and tedious plotting work that once burdened teams of market researchers.

Meanwhile, the scientific community is also putting GIS to work. By feeding reams of data into such systems, scientists can visually analyze everything from encroaching deserts in Africa to the effects of acid rain in Europe. And doctors use the technology to correlate the incidence of cancer with pollution and other factors. "This isn't just about making maps, it's about building models of the way reality is," says Jack Dangermond, president of Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), a GIS-software company in Redlands, Calif.

For Conrail, reality means keeping tabs on 20,000 miles of railroad track and thousands of parcels of adjoining real estate in 14 states in the Northeast. The company pours data from special track-monitoring cars into a GIS that creates a color-coded map that alerts engineers when tracks need work. Conrail also uses GIS to hunt new customers by matching its rail lines with a computer-generated map of nearby businesses.

TUNNEL VISION. Government contracts, however, still account for about 60% of America's GIS market. Recently, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey awarded contracts worth $450 million to convert paper topological maps to digital. And if President Clinton makes good on even part of his promise to pour $80 billion into rebuilding the infrastructure, GIS companies stand to gain. That's because government agencies find they can cut costs and construction time by using GIS for public-works projects.

Nowhere is that clearer than in Boston, where Uncle Sam is funding most of a $6 billion project to replace an elevated highway with a tunnel beneath the city. Starting with old paper maps and satellite surveys, engineers spent 18 months creating a $3 million digital map that includes every street, building, pipe, and cable in the area. The tunnel burrows close to building foundations, gas lines, and even cemeteries. To relocate the maze of ancient utility pipes, engineers from Bechtel Corp. and Parsons-Brinckerhoff Inc. reroute pipes on their computer map, then print out work orders to construction crews. "It takes five minutes, instead of days [doing it] the old way," says Boris Tsirulnik, a utilities engineer on the project.

Engineers working on the Boston tunnel created their digital map from scratch. But others are launching geographic information systems with off-the-shelf maps and software. These maps are based on the Census Bureau's first national digital map, which contains every street in the country. But because it is accurate only to within 200 feet and is dotted with errors, a small industry has sprung up to fine-tune it. Companies such as Etak in Menlo Park, Calif., have workers driving along the byways of America, jotting down the precise location of intersections, traffic signs, and buildings.

Some communities have linked GIS with communications gear. At the emergency center in Pinellas County, Fla., dispatchers can see a caller's location on a wall-size digital map, along with the location of the county's ambulances. An electronic map in the vehicle guides its driver and provides the caller's name and the type of emergency.

IN THE VANGUARD. Geospan Corp. in Minneapolis is betting that communities and businesses will want even more detail. The company is deploying vans that are linked to satellite positioning systems and equipped with 10 video cameras each. The idea: to record images of every city street in the U.S., store them on compact disks, and link them to digital maps. Press a button, and up pops a video or digital record of the road with utility lines, traffic signs, and buildings. Geospan plans to update the record every year.

The tools to transform reams of data into brightly colored, easy-to-interpret digital maps come from specialized software suppliers, such as Intergraph Corp. in Huntsville, Ala., and Risk Management Software Inc. in Mountain View, Calif. Since 1987, the market leader, ESRI, has seen its sales grow 30% a year, to $120 million last year. Its ARC/INFO software system will transform raw data on a river's water quality, for instance, into a color-coded map displaying the pattern of pollution.

GIS technology is also moving into new consumer markets. Software from Automap Inc. in Phoenix lets travelers pick the fastest route between two cities, plot it on an electronic map, and estimate driving time. And computerized charts from Trimble Navigation Ltd. in Sunnyvale, Calif., linked to satellites, will tell boaters their precise location, shown by a boat-shaped cursor on the chart.

Digital maps aren't actually going to solve urban problems, of course. And they certainly won't make earthquakes go away. Still, electronic mapping systems may someday be as familiar as blueprints and dog-eared paper maps.

      Market leaders for geographical information systems software include:
      1992 software sales
      Redlands, Calif.      $108 million
      Huntsville, Ala.       $96 million
      St. Louis              $20 million
      Santa Clara, Calif.    $17 million
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