Web Services Put GIS on the Map

Web services enable IT to easily embed powerful geographic information system analysis and mapping capabilities in familiar end-user applications.

For Edens & Avant, which builds and manage shopping centers, location is everything. Building in a neighborhood with the wrong demographics for its retail tenants or where traffic flow or access is poor can lead to disaster, says David Beitz, geographic and marketing information systems manager at the $2.3 billion real estate investment firm. "The cost is tremendous if you build a shopping center somewhere and a major tenant leaves. You're going to lose a lot of money," he says.

To ensure that doesn't happen, Beitz uses geographic information system (GIS) tools and data from Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI) in Redlands, Calif. By creating a geographic map and overlays that plot customer populations and demographics, competing businesses and street and traffic patterns, Beitz can produce a visual report that decision-makers can use. The entire process takes just a few minutes.

Today, Columbia, S.C.-based Edens & Avant purchases the underlying data and then periodically updates it. But Beitz is also experimenting with accessing current data via the Web. Using ESRI's ArcExplorer Java Edition viewer, Beitz can quickly build a map that combines his internal data with the latest street data from the U.S. Census Bureau and toxic waste site data from the Environmental Protection Agency (see image). ESRI offers both sets of data as Web services. "You're not downloading it; you're basically viewing it," Beitz says, so there's no need to use a local copy of that data.

Beitz uses ArcExplorer for initial screening of prospective sites but says he still does in-depth analysis with data purchased for use in-house. "You can't do really good-looking maps [using ArcExplorer]," he says. But that may change as GIS tool vendors, data providers and users gradually make more GIS data and applications available as Web services.

Rapidly evolving support for Web services in GIS is not only changing how analysts access and view maps and data; vendors and analysts say it will also facilitate the integration of GIS functions into a wide range of applications. In so doing, Web services will open up GIS to decision-makers, who will have direct access to some capabilities that are available today only by working with a specialist.

"Historically, geospatial has been seen as something kind of in the basement," says George Moon, chief technology officer at Troy, N.Y.-based MapInfo Corp. Web services can put relevant GIS applications on the end user's desktop by embedding them within familiar applications. "I don't have to understand a proprietary interface to embed code," he says.

A suite of emerging Web services standards from the Open GIS Consortium Inc. (OGC) in Wayland, Mass., is facilitating this transition by enabling interoperability. The most heavily used of those standards, Web Map Service, Web Feature Service and the XML-based Geography Markup Language, "allow applications to access distributed spatial data across the Internet to any OGC-enabled repository," says Carl Reed, executive director of the OGC's specification program.

"Advances in databases and analysis tools, coupled with enhanced Web capability, is bringing this to the masses," says Rob Enderle, an analyst at San Jose-based Enderle Group.

Microsoft Corp. is helping to broaden acceptance of mapping tools with MapPoint 2004, a street-mapping program that includes some demographic overlays. Users can buy the package or access MapPoint Web Services, which can be integrated into an application developer's Global Positioning System application.

Other vendors offer more sophisticated tools and are also adding Web services offerings, but "Microsoft appears to be the leader in just making things easier for Web deployment," Enderle says.

Web services extend the use of GIS by making the integration with other applications easier, according to MapInfo's Moon. "If I want to show a map to a customer in my address book, I don't have to embed that into the contact application. I can now expose that through a Web service to add value without having to [rewrite] my code base," he says.

The promise of up-to-date information is also attractive to Steve Wallace, senior strategic planner at Florida Farm Bureau Insurance Cos. in Gainesville, Fla. He uses GIS tools and data from MapInfo to qualify homeowner's policy applications and track changes in municipal boundaries.

While using Web services to gain access to regularly updated data sounds appealing, Wallace doesn't see that method ever replacing his internal GIS system. "Do I think that someone would build a Web service to do exactly what our company needs? Not likely. Some have tried, but they are rather simple," he says.

And despite the promise of GIS Web services, interoperability among GIS programs and data sources is far from seamless. "That's because the data has been defined differently. This is a big issue," says the OGC's Reed, noting that even details such as road width can affect an analysis when combining data in overlays. "We're working with states and counties to ... deal with those differences on the fly so that the data becomes seamless," he adds.

But for now, says Bern Szukalski, product manager at ESRI, "those standards really aren't quite ... mature." Today, they simply provide a "lowest common denominator" for mapping and GIS functions, he says.

ESRI, the industry heavyweight with perhaps the broadest range of products, repackages data into the Shapefile format that's optimized for use with its own products. ESRI's ArcExplorer viewer is designed to support Web services provided through its proprietary ArcIMS server software, although users can download a free extension to access Web services that support OpenGIS protocols. Support for the SOAP protocol won't appear until the next major release of its products, however.

Moon says MapInfo supports both OpenGIS and the World Wide Web Consortium's Web services standards, including SOAP, WSDL and UDDI, in products such as its miAware software for developing location-based services. "We're making sure all of our products can integrate to back-end services -- our own or someone else's," he says.

Vendor adoption of GIS Web services is still a work in progress. But in five years, Reed predicts, access to spatial services online will be as ubiquitous as Internet access is today.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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