Mapping the world with GIS wares

Desktop mapping programs are growing ever more popular in government agencies, thanks to their ability to combine geographic and other types of data. The programs are being used for an increasing variety of purposes: analyzing crime patterns, tracking demographic data, allocating aid in urban areas, dispatching emergency response vehicles and plotting campaign strategies for re-election.

The basic features of mapping programs have been set for several years. You can create or import map boundaries, attach data to the map areas and then perform operations on the data, displaying the results in full color on the map. You might, for example, attach census data to a map and then query the program to display the average household income in each census tract, county or state. Or you might want to have the map display all hospitals within five miles of a major freeway in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

In our last comparison of desktop mapping, or geographic information system (GIS), products in March 1998, the news was that the stronger products had added more powerful custom programming tools and solutions for publishing interactive maps to the World Wide Web.

This time around, the most obvious improvements are in two areas. First, some of the programs offer greater connectivity to external data. That allows users to store spatial data in, for example, an Oracle Corp. database, where it can be shared by the entire organization and accessed at will from within the mapping program. The second major area of improvement is a broader offering of modular add-on programs from the vendor or third-party developers.

In this comparison, we looked at the five highest-profile desktop GIS programs: Autodesk Inc.'s World 2.0, Caliper Corp.'s Maptitude 4.0, Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc.'s ArcView 3.1, Intergraph Corp.'s GeoMedia 2.0 and MapInfo Corp.'s MapInfo Professional 5.0.

The two graybeards in the desktop mapping world - MapInfo and ArcView - are still the front-runners. Their final scores were so close, at 8.15 and 8.20, respectively, and far enough ahead of the others that we consider them tied. Both offer very strong sets of mapping tools combined with relatively high ease of use. And both offer an extensive selection of custom applications and add-on modules as well as many consultants available to help you if you need to create a custom solution.

The other programs in this comparison also have their strengths and will be the best solutions for certain agencies and departments. Maptitude, for example, does not have an extensive set of add-on modules, nor are its ranks of consultants available to call on. But the program is the easiest to use of the bunch and costs the least. If you can accomplish your job with the tools provided by Maptitude, it is easily your best value.

World and GeoMedia really are designed for users who intend to customize them with in-house programming. Each program offers special advantages. World, for example, excels at data management, and it integrates well with other Autodesk products. GeoMedia also offers strong data connectivity.

In short, whether you are looking for a general-purpose mapping program with extended consulting support or a data-intensive programmable GIS engine, you will want to look closely at the specifics of each program before deciding which is right for your department's purposes.

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ESRI's ArcView 3.1

Like Maptitude, ArcView has not changed much since our last comparison, moving only from Version 3.0a to 3.1. But that doesn't mean ESRI isn't pursuing development. Instead of revamping the core product, ESRI added capabilities to ArcView in the form of optional modules that work with ArcView.

When we last looked at ArcView, the available add-on modules included the Spatial Analyst, which provides high-end spatial analysis tools, such as data buffers; the Business Analyst, which provides tools for analyzing market areas and managing sales territories; the Network Analyst, which provides routing tools; StreetMap, which provides street-level address matching; and the Internet Map Server, which allows users to place interactive maps on Web sites.

In the past year, ESRI has introduced two new modules for ArcView: the 3D Analyst, which allows users to create, display and analyze surface data such as topographical maps, and the Tracking Analyst, which delivers Global Positioning System tools for tracking vehicles.

These optional modules are built on top of a powerful ArcView GIS engine. For starters, the program offers very strong data query tools and excellent thematic mapping for creating range fills, dot-density fills, proportional-symbol maps and chart maps. And many of data query tasks have been made easier in Version 3.1 thanks to the introduction of new wizards.

ArcView lags a tad behind MapInfo and Maptitude in map-creation tools. First of all, the program lacks a curve tool and polyline smoothing. Even more daunting, points, lines and polygons must be created on separate map layers, which quickly results in layer-management headaches.

If ArcView lags in map creation, however, it surpasses the competition in geocoding and labeling. The geocoding utility is powerful and easy to use. And ArcView is the only program we tested that automatically scales labels in addition to allowing you to specify elevations for display.

While ArcView always has been a powerful GIS program, it has lagged somewhat behind MapInfo and Maptitude in ease of use. Fortunately, the 3.1 version includes some enhancements, none being more welcome than a raft of new wizards that simplify some formerly complex chores. The program still isn't the easiest to use, but one can immediately recognize the improvement.

ArcView also now offers Seagate Software Network and Storage Management Group Inc.'s Crystal Reports for creating reports of tabular data. You also will find new sets of symbols and additional bundled map data. Finally, ArcView 3.1 offers tighter integration with Arc/Info, which is ESRI's high-end GIS product.

ArcView earns extra points for its enterprise muscle. The program is designed to run as a client/server application, and like MapInfo, it offers Unix, Microsoft Corp. Windows and Apple Computer Inc. clients. Also, ArcView offers an optional spatial database engine that makes it possible to integrate geographic data with high-end relational databases.

ArcView is backed by an extensive community of developers and consultants. If price is not your prime consideration, you will not find a stronger enterprise-level mapping solution than ArcView, which got a final score of 8.20.

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MapInfo's MapInfo Professional 5.0

Some might question whether there is enough new functionality in MapInfo Professional 5.0 to warrant a full version-number upgrade. But there is no question at all that MapInfo Corp. is determined to keep this desktop GIS powerhouse at the front of the pack.

The program's map-creation tools are at least as strong as those found in any other program. The expected line, ellipse and circle tools are present, and you can draw map features with unlimited line widths. Boundaries are easy to line up, thanks to MapInfo's snap-to-node feature.

Beyond these basics, MapInfo offers a strong set of tools that you will not find in some desktop mapping programs, including street intersections, contouring and polyline smoothing. The result is that MapInfo makes it easy to create just about any kind of map object you like.

MapInfo's ability to employ raster maps and other images, along with its powerful and easy-to-use geocoding and address-matching tools, also earn the program high marks. In addition, MapInfo offers an array of attractively designed symbols. You can edit MapInfo's TrueType font symbols in a font editor, and you can use the provided symbols in other Windows applications. You also can import any bitmap image, such as a company logo, to use as symbols on maps.

MapInfo's already powerful set of theme-mapping and query tools has been enhanced in Version 5.0. The program lets you generate theme maps displaying data in a wide variety of formats, including dot-density fills, proportional fills, ranged fills and pin maps. The program offers flexible controls over how ranges are generated, allowing users to choose equal numbers of records, equal sizes of ranges, standard deviations or user-defined formulas.

One nifty new feature is continuous thematic shading. Using this feature, you can display data analysis across geographic boundaries. You might, for example, display temperature ranges across a map of the United States. MapInfo will read the point data you have entered and, using an invisible grid, generate the theme overlay while ignoring the underlying state boundaries.

MapInfo's data querying tools also are strong, thanks to powerful and easy-to-use utilities for building and saving queries of internal databases and external Microsoft SQL databases. MapInfo's access via Open Database Connectivity to an external database has been enhanced with Live Remote Access. Now, instead of having to download data from the external database each time a query is performed, MapInfo creates a link to the database. That means there is no need to take up local storage space. It also means the centrally stored data can be automatically updated locally. And MapInfo offers optional modules that allow users to store spatial data in Oracle and Informix databases.

MapInfo also has taken care of one weakness in previous versions - the program's relatively weak tabular reporting tools - by including Crystal Reports from Seagate.

Finally, Version 5.0 offers an updated Universal Translator that includes support for the latest Autodesk Inc. AutoCAD file formats.

MapInfo has attracted extensive support from consultants and third-party developers. That, coupled with MapInfo's own optional add-on packages, means that departmental and agency-level users can accomplish just about any task with the product. The program comes bundled with a GPS application, and users optionally can buy products for optimizing sales territories. Another optional program, Vertical Mapper, offers 3-D analysis and display. MapXtreme enables users to create and maintain interactive maps on the Web.

Those who want to customize MapInfo can turn to the product's own scripting language, MapBasic, or to MapX. MapX offers most, but not all, of MapInfo's capabilities in ActiveX objects.

The bottom line: MapInfo offers the strongest combination of power and ease of use among all the desktop mapping products. As such, it rates, along with ESRI ArcView, at the top in this comparison, with a final score of 8.15.

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Caliper's Maptitude 4.0

Why mess with a good thing? That may be the philosophy Caliper is following. Its Maptitude desktop GIS program is in the same version as it was when we looked at it a year ago. Maptitude was then, and is still, the easiest to use of the desktop mapping products. It's also by far the least expensive of the programs in this comparison.

Maptitude is not backed by legions of consultants, and there aren't catalogs of custom applications and modules to browse through to add capabilities to the basic package. But you will not find a program that offers a stronger or easier-to-use set of basic map creation and data querying tools.

The program makes it easy to create attractive maps, thanks to a full set of drawing tools that includes snap-to-node and a freehand curve tool. Labeling is flexible and easy, especially if you use the auto-label feature. Our only gripe was that you have to convert auto-labels to manual labels before you can manipulate them individually. In addition, you can attach images, sounds, movie files and Uniform Resource Locators to geographic features.

Maptitude's query and data-management tools also are generally strong. No program makes it easier to generate attractive theme maps, including ranged fills, dot-density fills, proportional symbols, patterns and charts. And Maptitude's data buffering tools, which include data-defined buffer zones, are very powerful and easy to employ. The program even supports GPS operations.

Creating attractive layouts also is easy, thanks to Maptitude's intuitive layout view. Once you create a new layout, you can add maps and charts at will, rearranging them using simple drag-and-drop techniques. The only snag is that the maps you place on layouts are copies of the originals and are not connected to the originals. That is, if you change the underlying map - say, by changing the theme from a ranged fill to a chart map - the change will not be reflected in the layout.

Maptitude does have a few weak points relative to the competition. First, there is no Web server capability. Second, the program is limited in its programmability. Caliper does offer a GIS Developer's Kit, which contains a proprietary scripting language that can be used to create macros, customize the Maptitude interface or create custom applications. You can call on the scripting language's functions from other programming languages, but Maptitude does not expose objects for manipulation in Visual Basic or other programming languages.

Finally, Maptitude doesn't have extended modules for special tasks, such as 3-D analysis.

Still, if Maptitude isn't the program of choice for those wanting to develop mapping applications, it does represent the strongest combination of value, ease of use and power in an out-of-the-box solution. It earned a final score of 7.10.

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Intergraph's GeoMedia 2.0

GeoMedia was not in our March 1998 comparison because Version 2.0 was just about to be released. As such, we reviewed Version 2.0 in July 1998. And while GeoMedia is still in Version 2.0, Intergraph says a new version is in the works.

Like Autodesk's World, GeoMedia is really more of a GIS application development tool than an out-of-the-box solution for end users. The program lacks many of the basic drawing tools offered by the other programs. It offers no charting tools or address matching, and users will find only a basic set of querying tools.

What GeoMedia does offer, however, is strong programmability and a powerful underlying GIS engine.

GeoMedia does not offer a built-in programming interface, nor does it offer ActiveX controls for rapid application development. But GeoMedia does expose a wide array of its objects to programming languages such as Visual Basic and C++ for developers to use in creating custom applications and integrations.

Why use GeoMedia to develop GIS applications? Because the program offers unusually strong data connectivity and file-format support. GeoMedia employs Microsoft Access for its own built-in databases, and it supports Open Database Connectivity for accessing data in other databases.

GeoMedia delivers strong spatial analysis tools, including especially strong buffering tools, although they are not as easy for end users to access as we'd like. The program's labeling capabilities are also unusually strong, with interactive editing and user-specified offsets.

The program's theme-mapping tools also are strong. You can display multiple variables, and GeoMedia lets users employ a variety of methods for generating data ranges to display on the map, including custom formulas. But again, the program falls short of the competition when it comes to polish: There are no dot-density fills, no proportional symbols and no pie charts.

The bottom line: If you're prepared to develop your own GIS application, GeoMedia - finishing with a final score of 5.80 - offers a strong platform with solid data connectivity and format support. Just don't expect an out-of-the-box solution that will have end users generating attractive maps in short order.

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Autodesk's World 2.0

When we looked at World 1.0 in our March 1998 comparison, we found the program to have two basic strengths. First, it excelled at data management, and second, it was eminently programmable.

World 2.0 adds to those strengths. The new version adds supports for Autodesk file formats, including AutoCAD Release 14 DWG support and DXF format. In addition, the program now supports CS-MAP 8.0 coordinate system libraries. And the programming objects exposed by the program have nearly doubled in size, including 30 new objects and more than 200 new methods and properties. That means developers can create even more powerful and specifically tailored applications.

As with the previous version, in addition to exposing objects to Visual Basic, C++ and other programming languages, World 2.0 delivers Visual Basic for Applications fully integrated into the programs for relatively simple programming tasks.

We still found that World 2.0 has many of the same faults as its predecessor. The interface, with cluttered toolbars and inscrutable icons, is a challenge to learn and use. And many of the operations that are relatively simple in other programs, such as realigning labels, are major undertakings in World.

Still, even if they aren't the easiest to use, World does offer all the tools you need to create sophisticated maps. The program provides a full set of drawing tools and offers a flexible snap-to option so that it's easy to line objects up.

World offers strong tools for querying data directly, including SQL queries, and the program offers direct support for external relational databases, including Oracle's Spatial Data option.

The program's support for querying data via maps, however, is significantly more limited. While World offers several types of theme displays - including dot-density fills, pie charts, individual values and ranged fills - the program only ranges data using a single, linear method. You'll have to write custom programming if you want to generate ranges using other methods, such as equal number of records or equal size. World does offer powerful buffering tools, including data-driven buffers. But again, the tools are not all that easy to access and use.

World's layout tools are not up to par with those found in the competition. The program does, however, include Crystal Reports for reporting tabular data and creating graphs that can be placed on World maps. However, we would like to see stronger, more flexible controls over arranging layouts and creating legends.

World doesn't include any tools for publishing interactive maps on the Web, but World maps can be exported to Autodesk's MapGuide.

There's no getting around the fact that World, with its final score of 5.50, does not score highly as a general-purpose desktop GIS program. The reason is that while it offers strong GIS and data-management tools, it doesn't deliver an interface that makes those tools easily accessible. However, if you're prepared to take advantage of World's excellent programming capabilities, the product is definitely one to consider.

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Conclusion

While MapInfo and ArcView earned the top scores in this comparison, that doesn't mean that one of the other programs may not be the best fit for your needs. If you're looking for an easy-to-use, low-cost solution and don't need, say, 3-D analysis, Maptitude is a strong choice. And if you're looking for excellent database connectivity in a GIS development platform, World or GeoMedia may be your best selection.

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PRODUCTS TESTED

Autodesk Inc.World 2.0 Available on the GSA schedule. Score: 5.50

Caliper Corp.Maptitude 4.0Available on the open market. Score: 7.10

Environmental System Research Institute Inc.ArcView 3.1Available on the GSA schedule Score: 8.20

Intergraph Corp.GeoMedia 2.0Available on the Installation Management/Facilities CAD-2 contract.Score: 5.80

MapInfo CorpMapInfo Professional 5.0Available on the GSA schedule.Score: 8.15

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AT A GLANCE

Geographic Information Systems

PRICING: Prices range from $395 to $1,237.

WHAT'S SELLING: Desktop mapping programs with greater connectivity to external data, a broader offering of modular add-on programs and an increased ability to combine geographic and other types of data.

WHAT TO SPECIFY: Whether you need an easy-to-use system or a developer's platform, it's important to consider what level of performance you need.

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