A Grand Central Station for maps

In the realm of geographic information systems, the way to the promised land is via the World Wide Web, where multiple spatial datasets from anywhere in the world can be tapped, combined, customized and brought into focus through one fast, dynamic system.

Taking a step in that direction, Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI), a California-based GIS software developer, has launched the Geography Network, an Internet portal for map and GIS users and providers.

The site, which debuted June 23, is stocked with data from government and commercial sources ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Census Bureau to the Associated Press and database provider Compu-search Software Systems.

More than a site for looking at maps, the Geography Network is a place to build maps. "People will be able to register their map services [on the network], and others can query the portal and determine if services are available through it to meet their needs," said Jay Donnelly, who works with the U.S. Geological Survey's Atlas of the United States project.

What's more, the site aims to make GIS data much more significant to general users.

"What it means is that anyone will be able to go online and create their own GIS maps of anything they want," said Pat Jorgenson, a spokeswoman for the USGS in Menlo Park, Calif.

"We have data on almost every [geographic] aspect of the Earth — certainly in the U.S. — surface elevation, water-courses, rivers, lakes, ponds, oil resources, coal, precious minerals," Jorgenson said. And with the National Biological Survey now incorporated into the USGS mission, flora and fauna maps are also going to be part of the Geography Network.

For example, she said, an Internet user could access the new site to retrieve U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data on coyote sightings, then pull up a map of their community from the USGS source maps, "and blend them together and get a map of where the coyotes have been seen in their little town."

Drawing on information from the network, governments at the national, state and local levels will be able to build geographic information systems tailored to their own community needs, depicting water levels, land use and even crime and health data. But the service also puts the information right into the hands of citizens.

"Let's say you want to buy a house," said Joel Campbell, who manages the Washington, D.C., regional office for ESRI. "You go to the Geography Network and key in the address of the house you want to buy. By accessing the EPA's toxic release inventory and the [Federal Emergency Management Agency] flood plain data and the Department of Justice's crime statistics and the Centers for Disease Control's disease data, you can get a good picture of the environment" in which the house is located.

"You can find you're not in a flood plain, the crime rate is low, there have been no toxic releases and the cancer rate is low," Campbell said.

Or maybe you will learn the reverse, but at least the information is there.

"I think the basic application that federal users will be able to take advantage of is sharing data," Campbell said. "It will provide a single point where they can share data among themselves, or their constituents, or state and local governments and citizens."

Among agencies, the new service means no longer sending out requests to each other for needed data. If FEMA were working on a flood plain proj-ect, for example, it would probably require Census block-group data. Block groups are geographic entities within the same census tract — typically including 250 to 550 housing units.

FEMA would have to get the data from Census and load it into its own computer. Now, he said, FEMA can load the data from the Geography Network site using a smart client that would let a user manipulate and work with the information on his or her own computer.

"Another way to look at this is that geographynetwork.com makes one big local-area network for GIS that's utilizing the World Wide Web...so we can share data as if it's in our own office," Campbell said.

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