GIS exec works to unlock hidden geographic data

The dominant maker of geographic information system software is making it easier for governments to share their own detailed mapping information.

BURLINGAME, Calif.--Geography buffs tantalized by the quantity of geographic information hidden away among countless municipal computer systems have something to cheer about.

Combining Portland, Ore., geographic data and Google Earth can help show how long it takes to drive from a given point. Blue areas can be reached in five minutes, for example.
Combining Portland, Ore., geographic data and Google Earth can help show how long it takes to drive from a given point. Blue areas can be reached in five minutes, for example. Stephen Shankland/CNET Networks

The new version 9.3 of the dominant geographic information system (GIS) software, sold by a company called ESRI, now makes it a relatively simple matter to expose that data for easy consumption over the Internet.

"We are engineering it so it plugs in. It becomes effectively a support mechanism to the geoweb," said ESRI founder and Chief Executive Jack Dangermond, announcing the change at the Where 2.0 conference here.

Showing one example of what can be done with the idea if detailed geographic information were more readily available, he used mapping information supplied by the city of Portland, Ore. Using Google Earth software, he showed a color-coded map that showed how far a person could drive in a certain amount of time from a specific location. Yellow was a short trip, blue took longer, green was another notch longer, and the areas were shaped according to driving speeds on different road types.

Another example showed a projection of the recent San Diego forest fires spreading into residential areas and evacuation routes that reflected up-to-date road closures.

ESRI CEO Jack Dangermond
ESRI CEO Jack Dangermond Stephen Shankland/CNET Networks

GIS software long predates Internet-based mapping services such as Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, Google Earth, Microsoft Live Maps, and Microsoft Virtual Earth. The software is used for tasks such as recording housing property lines, telephone pole locations, sewer lines, and boundaries between residential and industrial zones.

Governments are naturally reluctant to reveal some details such as where the fiber-optic lines head into the New York Stock Exchange. But a lot of information is limited not by such constraints, but rather by the resources needed to process the data, argued John Hanke, head of Google Maps and Google Earth.

"It takes time and takes money," Hanke said. "If Jack can make it a one-click move for them, a lot more will do it."

The new ESRI software will let users export data as KML files, a Google format that's now a neutral format. KML data such as trails or 3D building models can be overlaid on online maps and with software such as Google Earth and Virtual Earth.

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