Desktop GIS

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a map can be worth several thousand words, especially if it helps get the job done. That's why software that makes it easy to create maps is so valuable to government information technology shops involved in allocating scarce resources to meet community needs. We reviewed four PC-based packages that offer sophisticated mapping tools at prices low enough for any budget.

Geographic information systems (GIS) combine the analytical power of databases with the geographic capabilities of maps to produce reports that show-at a glance-anything from demographic trends to the most appropriate site for a new hospital.

GIS programs have long been used by engineers, transportation planners and other highly trained specialists to track and analyze geographically oriented data, from the location and age of utility lines to deforestation trends. The snag was that buying a GIS meant spending many thousands of dollars on software and thousands more on high-end workstations and training.

The latest crop of PC-based GIS programs, however, has changed the situation dramatically. The desktop programs in this roundup-ArcView and Atlas GIS from Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI), MapInfo Professional from MapInfo Corp. and Maptitude from Caliper Corp.-all offer analytical and mapping tools that come close to matching those in high-end programs such as ESRI's Arc/Info, Caliper's GIS+ and Bentley Systems Inc.'s MicroStation. They all feature powerful digitizing tools; support for raster images; strong query and calculation utilities; and the ability to display the results in ranged-fill, dot-density and proportional-symbol maps. All the programs also support address matching-to locate objects accurately on street maps-and some of the programs even offer real-time global positioning capabilities for tracking vehicles.

Even better, the desktop GIS programs carry prices that are a fraction of their more expensive workstation-based cousins. And they're much easier to learn and use.

With packages such as these available, a growing number of state and local agencies that didn't dare take on GIS a few years ago are now turning to relatively inexpensive desktop applications for a number of tasks, including:

* Tracking the incidence and location of gang crimes to help prioritize resources.

* Analyzing demographic data to select optimal sites for neighborhood service centers or new elementary schools.

* Analyzing accident data to select the best site for an emergency room.

* Tracking the location of emergency-response vehicles to help speed their dispatch.

GIS programs aren't just good at analyzing data. You can also use them to make attractive presentations of demographic trends and other information that can be grasped at a glance. The resulting graphics are a more effective means of communication than placing long, dry tables of numbers in front of your supervisor or oversight board.

Be forewarned, however, that making a choice among the available desktop GIS programs is not a simple task. For this comparison, we scored the programs for how well they fulfill a general set of needs. But the differences between these programs are relatively subtle, as is reflected in their close scores. All the programs can handle the tasks most users want to perform, including searching for map features and creating "theme" maps, such as a map of census blocks that displays, say, the ranges of household incomes as different color fills. And all do a creditable job of geocoding data records to street addresses.

But you'll need to look closely at the particulars of the programs to see which one best suits your needs. For example, if you want to generate charts and graphs to accompany maps, you'll have to choose either ArcView or MapInfo. But if you want to create multiple concentric buffers, your only choice is Maptitude. For a complete list of each product's features, as well as individual reviews, visit our Web site at www.fcw-civic.com.

Our overall winner was MapInfo, which offered the best map-creation tools, an easy-to-use Windows interface and support for Unix and Macintosh platforms. In second place was the value leader, Maptitude, which offers a solid set of mapping tools for only $395. In third place was ESRI's ArcView, which is a good choice if you need to analyze existing maps, but it requires you to buy additional packages for some features included in the other packages. In last place was ESRI's Atlas GIS, a package that we don't recommend because of its 16-bit nature, limited map-creation tools and unstable ownership.

-- Patrick Marshall is research manager at the InfoWorld Test Center.

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Mining the Web for Data

You can, of course, buy just about any demographic data and map files you need from commercial publishers, such as Claritas or National Decision Systems. But you can also find a wealth of material on the World Wide Web-some of it free, and some not.

Most of the free data is on federal and state government Web sites. And the first stop for most data miners will be at the Census Bureau, www.census.gov.

The Census site is easy to navigate, and you'll find a mix of free and not free data. You can browse and download a surprisingly large variety of data from the 1990 census summaries. You can also purchase the bureau's Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing line files at the reasonable price of $250 per region or $1,500 for the entire national set.

If you need specific data that isn't in the prepacked tables, try the Data Extraction System. This utility, available at www.census.gov/DES/www/inst.html, lets you generate custom extracts as raw data.

And don't forget to browse the site's CenStats section, which contains the bureau's more recent reports, such as the annual Statistical Abstract of the United States. You'll also find studies of specific statistical subjects, such as housing starts and trade figures. You can download what you like in the form of Adobe Acrobat PDF files. Bear in mind, however, that unlike the tables downloaded from other sections, these PDF files can't be imported directly to your GIS program.

The Census site also offers links to an array of other government agency sites, including those of the Justice, Labor, Education, Commerce and Agriculture departments. As with the Census site, you'll find a mix of free and almost-free data. If you want to go to the sites directly, here are their addresses:

Bureau of Economic Analysis: www.bea.doc.gov

Justice Department: www.ojp.usdoj.gov

Bureau of Labor Statistics: www.bls.gov

Bureau of Transportation Statistics: www.bts.gov

Bureau of Economic Research: www.econ.ag.gov

Energy Information Administration: www.eia.doe.gov

Internal Revenue Service: www.irs.ustreas.gov

National Agricultural Statistics Service: www.usda.gov

National Center for Education Statistics: www.ed.gov

National Center for Health Statistics: www.cdc.gov

National Science Foundation: www.nsf.gov

A few other sites with interesting data sets include:

Minnesota Historical Census Project, selected data from 1850-1990: www.his.umn.edu/~ipums

Government Information Sharing Project : www.govinfo.kerr.orst.edu/index.html

CIESIN, a nonprofit research and data service: www.ciesin.org

If you're looking for digital and raster maps, there are several sites you'll want to visit:

U.S. Geological Survey: www-oh.er.usgs.gov

National Digital Map Library: www.lib.virginia.edu/gic/maps_nat.html

Magellan, commercial map site: magellangeo.com

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How We Tested: GIS Software

We tested this software on a 133 MHz Pentium PC with 32M of memory running Windows NT 4.0.The tests were designed-and the weightings for scores assigned-with the needs of state and local government agencies in mind. Although the potential uses of GIS in state and local government are varied, they are decidedly different from those of, say, a corporate sales staff.

Installation/Configuration

Multiplatform versions of the program count for more than they might with a corporate sales staff. We also looked for ease of installation on the workstation and on the network as well as for the strength of the programming language.

Map Creation

We looked first for the power and flexibility of the tools provided for creating maps from scratch; for cropping, copying, bringing in maps from other sources; and editing maps. Second, we looked for the ease of performing those chores.

Querying and Data Management

This category received the greatest weight in our comparison. It covers the chores of asking questions of your data and displaying it on the map. Given the priorities of local government agencies, we looked especially for strong search tools, thematic mapping features, routing and GPS capabilities.

Reporting

We gave significant weight to the tools provided for creating a page layout. But we also looked for charting tools that could provide an alternative view on demographic and other data.

Documentation

We gave equal importance to the quality of hard-copy manuals and to on-line documentation.

Support Policies and Technical Support

In light of the complexity of GIS applications, these categories were weighted heavily in this comparison. In addition to looking for free technical support and toll-free access, we looked to see which applications were supported by networks of consultants and developers.

Pricing

We used base retail prices available to state and local government buyers. All the vendors offer discounts, depending on the state involved and the size of the purchase.

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