NIMA's Web site: Too stealthy for casual surfer

Web sites bear the stamp of their host organizations and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency's site is no exception.

NIMA's austere opening section for the public portion of its site (www.nima.mil) is an on-line reflection of the "black" world of its two parents the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Mapping Agency which along with the Central Imagery Office the Defense Dissemination Program Office and the CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center were merged last year to form NIMA.

Dig Deeper for the Good Stuff

Aside from the well-executed graphic on its home page the public NIMA Web site at first glance offers little to grab the attention of the casual browser. But spend a little time poking into the on-line NIMA nooks and crannies and you will find a wealth of geospatial information.

Finding digital maps requires concentrated clicking because the home page reveals little of the riches buried on the site. The home page provides users with a bare-bones list of topics including "What's Hot " "Commercial Office " "The Organization " "Geospatial Information " "Imagery Information " "Publications" and a "Go To" button.

"What's Hot" seems an obvious choice in an otherwise bland netscape. It switches the user to a truly nifty Java-powered page that gives users access to NIMA's Digital Terrain Elevation Data (DTED) which includes a clickable world map. Move your pointer to an area that NIMA has mapped click and you zoom in to a 30-degree-by-30-degree area.

Click again and the NIMA site will produce a cross-hatched DTED representation of the area on your screen. You can download the data to your PC and overlay it on another map of the area that shows for instance road and rail systems.

Go back to the home page and it is pretty much guesswork for what you will get in other parts of the site. Try "Geospatial Information " and you are taken to an enormous list of NIMA products that are viewable on-line as a 200K text file or that can be downloaded as a 300K Microsoft Word file. The more-than-80-page text file shows the depth and breadth of NIMA products. Many of them are tailored strictly to military purposes but there are enough general-interest products to keep any map freak interested.

This Wal-Mart catalog of geospatial information covers the earth from the skies. Specialized and esoteric products abound such as the Space Shuttle World Map Book and the Physiographic Atlas "for use by NASA astronaut mission specialists."

Classified maps and charts listed in the catalog - and definitely not available on the public Web site - range from the Special Weapons (read nuclear) Overflight Guide to the Automated Air Facilities Information File which covers 43 000 airfields worldwide including "unusable airfields of any length visible from the air heliports and decoy fields." Although this catalog seems comprehensive NIMA does say in the introduction that the list will evolve as the agency "moves from product [services] to information services."

NIMA's Vision

To catch a glimpse of that shift go back to the home page and select the "Geospatial Information IPT (Integrated Product Team) Home Page." A grid-like screen takes you into the components of NIMA's new vision of the future based on commercial products and services to create a "global geospatial framework and infrastructure."

Click on the "Geospatial Prototype Facility" box and you get as close a look as possible for anyone who does not have special clearance at the new NIMA facility in Bethesda Md. The facility will allow "commercial industry to demonstrate technology that could fulfill requirements for geospatial information in the 21st century." This section includes two of the few photographs found on the NIMA public site.

It is a shame that NIMA hides so much good information about itself its products and its plans to propel itself into the Information Age on a site that turns off the casual user. Security constraints do not mandate bad Web design. But compared with Web sites whose glitzy graphics promise much but deliver little NIMA's approach may scare off those who are not willing to work as they surf.

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