We look at three GIS packages designed with state and local users in mind
- By Patrick Marshall
- Dec 31, 1997
Most of the time, you get what you pay for. And if somebody offers you something for free, you have to figure that's probably just about what it's worth. But not always.
If your agency deals with geographically sensitive data-such as population demographics, transportation routes, zoning ordinances, facilities planning or emergency services — you're in for a treat. As a growing number of World Wide Web-savvy managers and analysts are discovering, attractive alternatives in public-domain mapping programs and resources are available on the Web at little or no cost. These geographic information system (GIS) programs combine the data tools of a dedicated database with sophisticated mapping tools for querying and displaying the data.
For many managers working with tight budgets, these Web tools might be a way to get started in GIS until program dollars can be made available for higher-end systems. Many state and local agencies have been slow to adopt GIS programs for two reasons: The programs generally have been on the expensive side and learning to use them effectively takes a fair bit of training. But over the past few years, falling prices of commercial GIS programs-coupled with more powerful desktop computers-have helped GIS migrate off expensive workstations in engineering departments and move down to the desktop. However, implementation costs have remained high enough to give most department managers pause.
For many departments, however, public-domain GIS programs offer an effective solution. Because they cost little or nothing, the programs are eminently affordable, especially when you consider the fact that many of them also include data that is selected specifically for state and local government users. And, in some cases, the programs have been tailored so well for agency users that they're much easier to use than their commercial counterparts.
Although it is still relatively unknown at the state and local levels, there is no easier-to-learn or less expensive entry to GIS than LandView III.
A joint development project between the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, LandView actually consists of two modules: a mapping module and a database module. The mapping module, Marplot, includes a solid set of U.S. map boundaries, including state, county, congressional and census tract and block group boundaries. The program also includes a basic set of tools for navigating and scaling, creating new map boundaries and inserting raster images.
But what makes LandView especially attractive is the wealth of data that comes with it and the fact that the data already has been well-massaged before you get it. Want to check on the air quality reported at any or all of the EPA's monitoring stations? No problem. Just load LandView, call up the Air Quality database, select the specific category of data you want to show, click on Express Setup, and LandView will automatically generate a range of values to display and a legend to go with it. Click the Show on Map button, and a map of the United States will pop up with each monitoring station color-coded to reflect the reported air quality.
In addition to the air-quality data, the EPA has chipped in with a host of Superfund, hazardous waste and Brownfields data. The U.S. Geological Survey has contributed a wealth of point geography, including bodies of water, hospital sites, schools, cemeteries and churches. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has provided data on nuclear sites. The Transportation Department has provided airport locations, highways and railroads. The Census Bureau has anted up Tiger line files as well ZIP Code areas and data from the 1990 census.
Although LandView offers many of the amenities of commercial desktop GIS programs — you can, for example, turn map layers on and off, and you can insert raster images — the program lacks many of the more sophisticated tools. It does not, for example, support buffer queries, nor can you edit the legends generated by the program. Thematic mapping is easy to do, although you can choose only between the Express method, which divides records up among equal ranges of data values, or by entering the values manually. There are no other methods, such as an equal number of records and quantiles. LandView also sports a very limited set of symbols and has made no provision for creating or importing new ones.
But if LandView lacks some power features, the program's tight integration of bundled data and its automatic generation of theme ranges make it a simple program to use.
"It was designed for someone who isn't a GIS expert," said Jerry McFaul, a computer scientist with USGS. "The program started out as a tool to help manage hazardous-waste situations, and it was designed to be used by firemen. What was available before LandView was either too expensive or too demanding in the learning curve."
LandView hasn't yet become well-known at state and local agencies, and McFaul believes this was because the program's clunky DOS interface wasn't well-received by users. Hopefully, that should be rectified by the time this article goes to press. LandView III, which we examined in beta, should be available this month, and it offers friendly Windows and Macintosh interfaces.
"We think there's a tremendous need for this at the state and local level," McFaul said. "It's an appropriate starter tool."
Bill Kraynak, manager of the Connecticut State Data Center program, agreed. "This is going to fill a big hole," he said. "Libraries, for example, have been screaming for maps to go with the data. The 1990 census didn't have anything but huge, unmanageable maps to go with the data. Something like LandView III would be perfect to present the data quickly and easily. It's going to help people get a better perspective on the data."
And keep in mind, LandView can handle more than just the bundled data. If your agency wants to plug in its own data for analyzing in LandView, you can import all the data you want.
LandView can be downloaded for free from the Web, although most users will want to pay a nominal fee to receive LandView and its bundled data on disc. The $99 per disc ($549 for the full 11-disc set) is well worth the price because it will save you quite a few hours of downloading time and considerable hard drive space for storing data.
Community 2020, a product of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, started to ship less than a year ago is already earning a glowing reputation among state and local planners and policy-makers.
"I'm so very pleased that HUD has created this," said Roger Sanders, fiscal manager of the San Francisco Office of Community Development and Housing. "It's a really efficient product." Sanders said he was surprised at how good Community 2020 is, especially given its source. "I was impressed that a government agency would come up with a graphics-based program that was actually usable," he quipped. "Usually the agencies are not focused on the end user. Historically, HUD and other agencies have focused on their own needs and not necessarily on what the local communities need."
Part of the explanation may lie in the fact that, unlike LandView, Community 2020 is based on a commercial GIS package, Caliper Corp.'s Maptitude 3.0.
"We're not techies here," said David Kaminsky, an urban planner at HUD. "We saw a need for a tool to help state and local agencies comply with HUD project requirements, so we went out to see what was already available. We looked at the handful of off-the-shelf products and saw that Maptitude is aimed at the lower-end users."
HUD made a deal with Caliper to sell a specially customized version of Maptitude along with selected HUD and census data. The basic package of Community 2020, which includes the special edition of Maptitude and data for one of the four regions of the United States, costs $249. The deluxe package, which includes data for all four regions, costs $299. Not a bad deal when you consider that the list price for the regular commercial version of Maptitude is $395. And the package is provided free of charge to all HUD entitlement communities.
Caliper and HUD split the profits from the deal, with HUD's share going straight to the U.S. Treasury. And users don't seem to mind the relatively low price. "It's worth a lot more," said San Francisco's Sanders, noting that the Community 2020 version of Maptitude offers all the tools of the regular version, including the ability to import your own data and maps. Maptitude also sports sophisticated query tools, including buffer queries, paired with easy-to-use and flexible thematic mapping and a full set of tools for creating map objects.
As easy to use as Maptitude is, it is even easier if all you're accessing is the bundled data, thanks to a custom toolbar designed to provide quick access. Click on the HUD Map Library button, and you'll be quickly led through a short series of dialog boxes to create a map that effectively shows the data you're after. And Community 2020 offers a gold mine of data for state and local agencies.
The data is tailored mostly for use by communities in creating Consolidated Plans, which are five-year community plans, and the yearly Action Plans required by HUD from grant recipients. On the discs you'll find a selection of HUD Community Development and Public Housing data and a library of more than 100 pre-designed maps displaying housing, population and income data as well as project information on HUD Community Development and Public Housing programs. You'll also find 640 census data elements per census block group, tenant and site information on public-housing programs and a wide array of data from HUD Block Grant programs and competitive grant programs.
But the data in Community 2020 is useful for more than just fulfilling HUD requirements. Veronica Tam, a housing specialist with Cotton-Beland&Associates, a Pasadena, Calif., consulting firm, said she uses the program to help with five-year plans required by the state of California. "This is a big help," Tam said of Community 2020. "It has a lot of data that's needed for both plans."
Before Community 2020 was developed, Tam's firm had been using MapInfo and ArcView, commercial GIS programs from MapInfo Corp. and Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., respectively. "But we found that a lot of our clients had problems understanding the logic behind those programs," Tam said. "They're good programs, and they were fine for us to use for our own work, but most of our clients are public agencies that don't have GIS specialists. Because of the customizing for HUD, Community 2020 makes it easy for anybody who is a novice user to display what they want to display."
Don't think, however, that just because Community 2020 is easy to use you can't be ambitious with it. The program has the power to handle complex projects. "Community 2020 allows us to integrate our own projects with the census and HUD data," Sanders said. "We're collecting data from all the city departments and putting it in a database to analyze allocations. We know where the public-housing projects are, and we know where the projects we're funding are, so we can see if there's a match. Thanks to Community 2020, each funding decision will be based not only on specific merits but on needs in a particular area based on what all the agencies are doing."
Community 2020's ease of use is critical to its success in San Francisco, Sanders said. "The easier the tool is, the higher the probability that you're actually going to be sharing information."
HUD conducts a series of free two-day training seminars throughout the country. You can check the training schedule by visiting the Community 2020 Web site at www.hud.gov/cpd/2020soft.html.
The public domain also has some good pickings for power users. If your agency needs to do high-end GIS with sophisticated multiple-variable analysis and the ability to integrate custom code-and if you have in-house programming expertise-you'll want to take a look at GRASS.
GRASS, which stands for Geographic Resources Analysis Support System, was originally developed by the Army Corps of Engineers and was first made available to the public in 1989.
Apart from its power-the program's tools approach those of high-end commercial programs such as Arc/Info-two things make GRASS unique. First, the program's source code is fully open to end users. That means users can write their own code to fully integrate with GRASS. Second, GRASS is supported not by a single organization but by the Internet community. Several universities, some agencies and hundreds of users around the world share ideas, documentation, support and code for GRASS via the Web. As a result, a wide variety of modules are available for performing specialized operations such as hydrological modeling and erosion prediction.
"Cost, openness and the development community," said David Mandel, a chief engineer with Pacer Infotec. "Those are the three big, big factors that led me to GRASS." Actually, Mandel uses a number of GIS programs, including ESRI's Arc/Info and ArcView, depending on which tool best suits a given project. But he's inclined to use GRASS when he needs to customize code for a project. He turned to GRASS, for example, to develop a tool for calculating distance and flying paths between spotted owl habitats in Oregon.
Ranjan Muttiah, a researcher at Texas A&M's Blacklands Research Center, agree that openness is GRASS's biggest plus. "You can put your hand into the box and pull the code," Muttiah said of GRASS. "The others are mostly black boxes."
For one recent project, Muttiah wrote an interface to allow a neural network to work with GRASS to analyze land use from satellite photographs. "We had satellite scenes of certain areas, and we knew from experience the actual land uses at specific locations," Muttiah said. He then used the neural network to develop correlations between spectral data in the photographs and the land use, then used GRASS to display it on maps. "It would have been difficult to do in an environment where you didn't have access to the source code."
Like Mandel, Muttiah uses commercial GIS programs in addition to GRASS. "Some people might like getting a free package that they can download and learn," Muttiah noted. "Others might want the extensive support offered by Arc/Info. We have both mainly because some things are done more easily in one system than in another."
Until very recently, the program was available only for Unix systems. But Baylor University has just posted a Microsoft Corp. Windows 95/NT version of the program to the Web, an addition that is likely to further boost GRASS popularity.