October 27


  • Editor's Introduction
  • Hurricane Katrina: Geospatial Responses
  • Handmark Expands Location-Based Services
  • Denver Maps
  • Briefly Noted

Editor's Introduction

This week I bring you a brief interview with Farrell Jones, Associate Director of Louisiana State University's CADGIS Research Laboratory about his lab’s role in the response to Hurricane Katrina; I report on Handmark's expansion of its LBS services; and I profile Denver Maps, a great and constantly evolving municipal website. Plus a note about an article on the role of GIS in re-districting and my usual write-up of news from press releases.

— Matteo

Hurricane Katrina: Geospatial Responses

A few days ago I spoke with Farrell Jones, Associate Director of Louisiana State University's CADGIS Research Laboratory (more about the lab here) about his lab's role in the response to Hurricane Katrina.

"Early on," he told me, "as the hurricane hit, LSU was very heavily involved in helping the EOC [Emergency Operation Center] create maps. My lab was one of many organizations within LSU helping out. We had students helping out. On campus we set up a 20 terabyte server to make it available to LSU researchers and to federal and state agencies. Shortly after the hurricane hit, we had large number of images coming in and the server, which we named FEMA-STORE, was key for sharing. I was managing the files."

"After the heat of the moment, we started looking at this gigantic store of data and trying to figure out how to manage it for researchers and for the public. This is where Intergraph came in. They have TerraShare, which allows you to look at registered images. You can look at images via Windows Explorer, or GeoMedia, or ArcGIS. They also helped me with GeoMediaWebMap. I've been running Atlas, the Louisiana Statewide GIS website, for several years, but Intergraph set up an image extractor, to allow the public to extract pieces of images. This is how we anticipate making certain images public in the future. We also have a great deal of vector data. Atlas does not have a lot of viewing tools. It is mostly meant for the geospatial/CAD user and for them it is a great resource. It is not flashy. We do have some viewing tools and we will add them to the site."

What are your data sources? "We get our data from state agencies and from private companies. 3001 was one of the major providers. Also ImageAmerica, Space Imaging, Spot Image, GE, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)."

What did Intergraph provide you? "They gave us TerraShare software and three people to install the software, to import data, and to train staff. They designed the image extractor, set up two servers with Oracle software, and arranged for Oracle to lend us a database. They really stepped up to the plate and helped us out, donating to the Katrina effort. We've had a longstanding relationship with Intergraph: we started with them back in the days of the DEC VAX minicomputer. They hire our graduates and when we needed help they came to our rescue."

Handmark Expands Location-Based Services

Handmark, a developer and publisher of software for smart mobile devices, has released Version 2.0 of its Pocket Express bundle of wireless content services for cell phones and handhelds. Pocket Express delivers news, stocks, sports, weather, movies, maps, and 411 directory search for wireless devices. The upgrade adds location-based services, more news and photos, real-time sports scores, movie box office charts, other content enhancements, and a new interface that makes all information accessible from a single screen. According to Handmark, users can access the information "at speeds up to twenty times faster than conventional Web browser access."

Sprint has included Pocket Express in ROM for its new PCS VisionSM Smart Device PPC-6600, a Microsoft Windows MobileT-based Pocket PC Phone Edition. Purchasers of the phone are now able to test the service bundle for free for 30 days, by following onscreen links. After that, they can choose to continue to use the service, by paying a monthly fee.

I discussed the launch with Douglas Edwards, Handmark's executive vice president and co-founder.

"We were known as a game company (Scrabble, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Battleship, etc.)," he told me, "even though it was less than half of our market." When Handmark began, about five and a half years ago, it did not see a platform on the market for robust applications, so it focused on wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs) — especially Palm devices — which generated a strong demand for applications.

However, Edwards explained to me, due to network latency and screen size, "Web browsing on a small device is a terrible experience." Therefore, his company realized, "it is important that content be truly optimized for that screen." Additionally, browsing requires time, which is also in short supply for most mobile users. They are generally not as interested in browsing as in quickly accessing a few specific kinds of information. To address this need, Handmark aggregated licensed content into Pocket Express and sold it as a single application. "When someone installs our product," Edwards told me, "the first thing that we collect is their ZIP code. Our goal is zero configuration and total personalization. Since we know where you are, we will auto-populate sports with professional and collegiate teams near you and do the same with movie theaters, etc. You can edit the list, of course. If you are a business traveler, it is easy for you to add a city. If you are using a supported GPS device, you can ask it to show you the nearest movie theater. We try to make it an easy and personalized experience."

"The other thing we do," Edwards continued, "is to cash the results [of a search]. I force an update just before they shut the door on the plane. Then I have all of my information — news headlines, stock prices, etc. — on the device."

Why did Handmark decide to aggregate and license content? "We initially thought about just building an RSS reader, but then we decided to go for a larger, mass market. [To ensure high download speeds,] we didn't want to have to link out to a browser page. We want to be able to control and optimize the reader experience. When the application calls our server, we authenticate the call and then provide the item directly from our server. For example, we download weather data from 2,000 locations every ten minutes and make it really easy to follow stocks. We also have white and yellow pages, including reverse searches. You can then add an address to your address book or map it. This collection of search and new functionalities are all accessible from a single screen."

What location accuracy does your application require? "We don't need pinpoint accuracy. The truth is that a ZIP code is usually good enough. We are using what Sprint calls the 'control plane.' On some carrier-based versions for the mass market we use cell tower triangulation. We are not a replacement for a navigation system. We treat LBS as a feature, not a product: it enhances the user experience by reducing the data entry that's required to find information."

Where do your get your mapping data? "We license data from TeleAtlas and use middleware from Telcontar. We also build a version that is available for retail with a mapping layer from Rand McNally. It calculates turn-by-turn directions and address-to-address. However, on LBS devices, we start with the closest major highway. Generally people know where they are at the moment, but they have a 'last mile' concern."

Denver Maps

The GIS Department of the City and County of Denver, Colorado (DenverGIS) is a central GIS department that supports more than 30 city agencies and departments and manages more than 500 data layers and associated information resources. In 2004, this GIS shop decided to make the location-based services (LBS) it provides to its residents, businesses, and visitors available on-line and accessible to a broad audience. The GIS staff spent many months discussing this project with city agencies and the public to identify their information needs, researching similar sites operated by other cities, and planning for the new site — Denver Maps. After completing the site, they put it through extensive user testing prior to launching it. Currently it averages more than 30,000 visits per month, with more than 80,000 unique visitors through the first six months of 2005.

Denver Maps provides access to Denver location-based information, collected from various applications, databases, data collection projects, citizen records, and old hard-copy maps. Users can also download maps and create custom maps. Denver Maps displays data in the form of interactive reports about specific topics — such as property, government services, recreation, public safety, or land survey — grouped into logical categories. Each report also includes search options, a map, and relevant links. The location initially entered by the user carries over from one report (say, on a property) to the next (say, on an election precinct), until the user enters a new location. This way, users can move seamlessly between categories and reports without having to re-enter their location information.

The maps are interactive and allow users to zoom, pan, re-center at specific locations, and select features. Check boxes below the maps enable users to toggle on and off additional layers and the legend shows the symbology only for the layers being displayed.

One key goal for Denver Maps was to ensure access to users with disabilities. To achieve this, the site allows users to run searches without having to interpret or interact with maps: search results that are displayed on the map are also provided in textual sections below the map. Users can access all the text on the site via links and reports are broken down into hierarchically organized sections that can be navigated quickly with a screen reader or other outline-capable browser. The site follows federal Section 508 guidelines and is fully compatible with assistive technologies, such as screen readers and text browsers.

To keep the data accurate and up-to-date, DenverGIS developed data standards for all agencies that might submit data to it. This, together with a data maintenance plan, protects Denver Maps from failing due to bad data or changes in data fields.

The site's architecture uses ASP and ArcIMS; the GIS data is stored in an Oracle database running ArcSDE. Reports are configured using XML utilizing spatial operations, attribute queries, and various output elements (such as maps, text, images, tables, and links). The site is also able to serve non-spatial data from SQL Server databases or any other format that can be read through ADO (ActiveX Data Objects).

This week I discussed Denver Maps with Daniel C. Hauser, Staff IT Developer for DenverGIS; David Luhan, Denver's GIS Director; and Allan Glen, Denver Maps' Lead Developer. They stressed to me that, in designing the site, they strove to make it easy to use and to incorporate federal accessibility requirements. For this reason, they designed the site so that it does not require any GIS experience and does not include any GIS tool bars. All the quotes below are from Luhan.

Where do you get your data? "All data sources come from multiple departments and agencies and through intergovernmental data sharing agreements with surrounding municipalities. You will see much more regional data coming on line in the future."

What were the biggest challenges you faced in building the site? "The biggest challenge was creating a scalable and extensible application architecture that we could use to incorporate additional data and functionality. The next biggest challenge was designing a site for non-GIS users and for people with disabilities. One of the challenges to make this accessible is to limit the need to interact with the map: we made it so that you can search for features without interacting with the map. You can just choose items from the list; the map is useful but you don't have to interact with it. We have had very few problems maintaining the site: it has required no code edits - just adding data and functionality."

Can experienced GIS users download data from the site? "Yes, you can download sample data and hardcopies of all the maps, for free."

What about the metadata? "We are not publishing it right now but have it for all 500 data layers." Can anyone get access to it? "Yes, by filling out a request form."

What's next for Denver Maps? "You will see additional crime reporting, sex offender location, and regional data to help support mayoral and regional initiatives — such as the FasTracks light rail project and economic development projects. We are also providing links to other state initiatives such as Ready Colorado."

How does Denver's site compare with those of other cities? "Our site strives to meet accessibility requirements. We think our site's the best! We won first place at the ESRI international user conference in the Web-Based GIS Application category — see here (bottom of the page) and here — and a honorable mention at the 2004 Public Technology Institute awards."

Where did you get the aerial photos? "They are from 6-inch color photography we flew last year."

How did you handle concerns about confidentiality and security? "All the information that you see is from public records. We do not provide information about peace officers and judicial officials. We also don't show any critical infrastructure, including buildings, fiber, and waterlines."

Briefly Noted

The October 23 issue of the New York Times has a very thoughtful article by Dean E. Murphy titled "Who Should Redistrict?" It includes a paragraph that gives the paper's more than one million readers a glimpse into the world of GIS:

Nicole Boyle is known around the University of California at Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies as the "G.I.S. queen." For nine years, starting when she was an undergraduate, she has analyzed election data with a technology known as Geographic Information Systems. On a morning in late August, Boyle was typing on her keyboard in front of an oversize screen covered with thousands of shapes splashed in multiple colors. Since the mid-1990's, the institute has maintained California's official redistricting data. With funding from a private grant, the institute is now using the data to test a central premise of the redistricting reform movement: can you draw districts that increase competitiveness while also accommodating other desires, like compactness? Boyle has been crunching demographic and census numbers since the spring trying to come up with an answer. On this morning, she had run into a brick wall with an experimental version of Congressional District 29 in Los Angeles County, as she used the keyboard to move the boundaries, dropping some census tracts and adding others. "This district has almost no chance of being a competitive district," Boyle conceded with some frustration.

About the Author

  • Matteo Luccio, MS
    Matteo Luccio, MS
    Matteo is the president of Pale Blue Dot Research, Writing, and Editing, LLC (www.palebluedotllc.com), which specializes in public policy and geospatial technologies. He has been writing about geospatial technologies since 2000 for six different technical publications and was previously a public policy research analyst for a private think tank and for state and local government agencies.

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