Java to stimulate federal mapping applications

Federal agencies and geographic information systems vendors are exploring how Java, the hot software language for building Internet-based applications, might be used to open GIS to more users and create a new set of applications.

"Java's really going to revolutionize how we interact in GIS," said George Gray, director of product development at Sedona GeoServices Inc., Broomall, Pa. "It's going to totally change what is being done today."

Developed by Sun Microsystems Inc., Java supports software called applets, which are applications that Internet users can run from a World Wide Web page but never download to their own computers. The applets will work on any platform, but they require Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator 2.0 and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT, Windows 95 or Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac System 7.5 to operate.

Internet experts said the key value of Java applets for GIS is that those applets will allow users to access complex GIS applications without purchasing expensive hardware and software and without downloading huge portions of databases.

"That's the idea behind Java," said John Leahy, group manager at Sun Microsystems Federal Inc., Vienna, Va. "It's focused on selecting a specific piece of data that an individual needs."

Intranet GIS

That option has intrigued federal agencies that are traditional GIS users and even those that are not. Internet specialists at the U.S. Geological Survey are studying how Java could enhance its Intranet—the agency's internal Internet-based network—by giving users access to powerful mapping applications.

Rick MacDonald, special assistant to the chief of the Office of Program Support, envisions a possible database of Java tools that, when pointed to, would offer short explanations for their use. The applets would perform common but complicated calculations, such as specialized mapping applications, graphing or determining standard deviations.

"The applications for the Intranet are more interesting than the applications for the Internet," said Keith Duncan, product manager for Internet applications at Genasys II Inc., Fort Collins, Colo. "It's really going to open up access to data."

Genasys this week will unveil its Spatial Web Broker, which is a device that distributes Web requests throughout a local-area network. A prototype is being used by Federal Express to direct customers to the closest drop boxes.

Genasys is pursuing Java applications for its Web broker and believes the federal government, particularly intelligence and Defense agencies, will be a good market, Duncan said.

Still, the Internet provides numerous Java opportunities for federal GIS applications. The Water Resources Division at USGS has begun studying whether Java could give users who access the division's Internet data on real-time streamflow of rivers at http://h2o.usgs.gov the ability to draw their own graphs.

"Drawing the graphs is one of the most CPU-intensive activities on our server and results in the longest waiting times," said Ken Lanfear, network information products coordinator at USGS' Water Resources Division. "We'd love to offload this to users."

Java also may be used to create specialized maps that users will "walk through," Leahy suggested. Such an application could be utilized by the Forest Service in mapping routes to fight forest fires, the Federal Emergency Management Agency in walking through virtual maps of natural disaster areas or the National Park Service in creating movable topographical maps for hikers.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which recently developed a GIS system for state and local governments to use when filing for federal community-development funds, is considering using Java to create maps that allow officials to examine applications by touring communities where new HUD-financed projects are planned.

Commercial Net Sites

On the commercial side, GIS companies are developing GIS sites on the Internet, and at least one company, GeoSystems Global Corp., New York, has developed a Java application.

GeoSystems last month debuted MapQuest, located at http://www.MapQuest.gov. The Web site, which had more than 1 million hits the first week it opened, allows users to create personalized maps, search for businesses and services along with directions and locate specific points of interest. A Java applet allows users to drag a pointer across icons on a map to activate windows that present detailed information, thus eliminating constant returns to a server to obtain the same information.

Perry Evans, general manager of information publishing at GeoSystems, said the company will market the service to agencies; for a fee, the service could include information such as data on national parks or the location of Social Security field offices.

"This is something that we would be very interested in studying," said Wayne Claybaugh, director of the Intelligent Workstation/Local-Area Network Division. "We're very excited about the potential for this."

Also developing an Internet site is Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., Redlands, Calif., and InfoNow, Aurora, Colo., a developer of Internet applications. The two companies signed an agreement this month to provide mapping and locating services over the Internet. InfoNow officials said applets will be integrated into the service and will have specific applications for government users.

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