Commerce taps mapmaker

Building a World Wide Web site that helps people locate government resources

by geographical area usually means investing in expensive, specialized mapping

software. The Commerce Department's Minority Business Development Administration

(MBDA) has found a new, less costly way to get the job done.

The agency recently contracted with MapQuest.com Inc. to integrate the

company's popular Web-based mapping solution into the MBDA Web site (www.mbda.gov).

The deal saves the MBDA time and money that it would have spent developing

its own system, and it allows the agency to outsource maintenance of the

application to the company.

With the MapQuest feature, minority business owners who visit the MBDA

site can enter their ZIP codes and receive a list of the nearest business

development resource centers. Accompanying the list is an area map and turn-by-turn

driv- ing directions.

"We are here to deliver services, and we should be able to do it in

a timely manner without making our customers drive further than they need

to," said Michael O'Hara Garcia, chief information officer for the MBDA.

"MapQuest understood our business process and how their technology could

help us."

Providing more of its services via the Web became a priority for the

MBDA in 1997, when the department learned its budget and work force would

be cut by more than 30 percent. The MBDA provides services to more than

2 million minority businesses each year.

Originally, the department launched a customer service Web site that

was linked to an MBDA database. The database contains information on more

than 2,500 federal, state and local government resources as well as commercial

and nonprofit business centers. But the information was not well organized

and was difficult to access.

"They had a very dysfunctional system in place," said Bennett Moe, an

account executive with MapQuest. "The information was there, but it was

hard to find. We streamlined the system so it is very easy to use and customized."

The MapQuest technology, which took less than five weeks to integrate

with the MBDA system, provides driving directions to area centers and detailed

maps to display statistical information. "We can search the database and

present information on where centers are located, how many loans over $100,000

were awarded in a geographic area or where the most loans are clustered,"

Garcia said.

MapQuest technology also has helped with matching minority-owned businesses

with large-business partners. A large business, using a designated password,

may search the database for a minority-owned business that sells a certain

product or service or that is located within a designated geographic area.

MapQuest officials believe there are plenty of other opportunities to partner

with government agencies. "This can be used to organize or present any information

that has geographic context," Moe said.

Under the agreement with Commerce, MBDA pays MapQuest a flat fee to

create a certain number of maps. A map is created each time a user visits

the MBDA Web site and queries the mapmaking database. There are additional

charges for each map created over the set amount.

The MBDA had been working for more than nine months to develop its own

mapping technology but found it was easier and less expensive to adopt and

customize the solution MapQuest had in place. The nearly plug-and-play technology

also made using MapQuest templates more appealing, although the MBDA did

customize the templates used on its Web site.

Another benefit for the MBDA is that MapQuest is responsible for maintaining

the hardware and software that provide the mapmaking functionality. When

a user visits the MBDA Web site and types a certain ZIP code into the search

form, the MBDA site searches its own database for nearby resource centers.

It then passes the search results via the Internet to the MapQuest server,

which produces the map and returns it to the MBDA site for presentation

to the user. The whole process takes only a few seconds.

"The system is scalable, so the...usage and volume can be increased,

and the development time is relatively short," Moe said.

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