The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Software That Marries Maps With Sophisticated Data Tables

Location, location, location! That may be the traditional mantra of real estate agents, but it isn't only those in the property business who might need sophisticated information about a particular geographic area.

If you have a mail-order business, for example, or keep track of liquor permit requests for a civic watchdog organization or want to know whether a certain franchise is really a good opportunity in your area, you could profit from a type of software known as a GIS, or geographic information system.

GIS software marries tables of data, such as a customer sales list, with demographic information from the Census Bureau and other sources to give you a detailed picture of exactly what is going on and where. And unlike simple street-mapping programs, GIS programs actually find the latitude and longitude coordinates of a given address. It is that process, typically called geocoding or address matching, that allows addresses to be compared to other geographic data.

The software thus enables you to see all kinds of relationships that may not have been clear before: Maybe your product sells three times better in ZIP codes where the median age is under 35 than in areas where it is over 45, for example. Or you might discover that thousands of addresses on the mailing list you bought don't really exist.

Unfortunately, GIS software in the past has been rather hard to use, and the demographic data needed to make it worthwhile has often been frightfully expensive.

That is now changing: A new entrant in GIS software, Maptitude 3.0 ($395, Caliper Corp., Newton, MA; (617) 527-4700), has radically altered GIS economics by including demographic data that in the past would have cost tens of thousands of dollars. And the existing players, including ArcView 2.0, ($995, Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., Redlands, CA; (800) 447-9778), Atlas GIS 3.0 for Windows ($495, Strategic Mapping Inc., Santa Clara, CA; (800) 472-6277) and MapInfo 3.0 ($1,295, MapInfo Corp., Troy, NY; (800) 327-8627) are all increasing performance while cutting prices and including more data.

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You won't find any of these programs in software stores--they are sold only direct by their publishers, though Caliper does intend to put Maptitude into retail distribution. And it's important to keep in mind that with the exception of Maptitude, the purchase price of the software is only the beginning of a GIS investment. You'll also need to spend anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars on local demographic data--far more if your business is truly nationwide.

Both MapInfo and Strategic Mapping sell their own packaged data to go with their programs, and they market data from a variety of other data providers in formats compatible with their programs. Environmental Systems Research Institute also sells some data of its own. But as the leader in high-end GIS software with its ARC/INFO product, ESRI has created a marketplace for other companies that specialize in various kinds of mapping analysis data. ESRI includes an excellent data catalogue with ArcView that describes the various competing data products available for its program.

Caliper Corp., which is just entering the desktop GIS market from its position specializing in transportation analysis, decided to bundle data it had already acquired, mostly from low-cost governmental sources, in an effort to break GIS out of the niche category.

Demographic data and street location and address data originates with the Census Bureau. The demographic data is as good as it gets, but the federal street mapping data, called TIGER line files, suffers from gaps and errors that make it frustrating to use. MapInfo, which publishes a number of excellent sales brochures that illustrate how its program and data can be used in various businesses, makes a good case for the value of its cleaned-up version of street-mapping files, because it allows a much higher percentage of accurate matches than the raw TIGER files.

The four programs are quite different from one another, but at their core they perform many of the same tasks. All produce maps from map data boundary files. The maps can be zoomed in or out, but, except for Maptitude, detail will be lacking at high magnification unless additional higher-resolution data files are purchased.

All of the programs can do theme maps of geographic data by displaying matching areas in various colors, densities, patterns and proportional symbol sizes.

Maptitude comes with the nationwide street files to find and geographically code addresses with latitude and longitude. Then it can map those locations, down to street-level detail. Atlas GIS can look up an address in a data table that comes free with the program and then center the map on that address. But if you want to map the actual streets at that location, you pay extra for the street-mapping file. With the other two programs, doing any address matching or geocoding requires buying the necessary files, which range from expensive to very expensive.

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Geographic analysis can be performed by all four programs. This is particularly useful in market analysis because it can determine the demographic characteristics of a specific region--for instance, the number of people between ages 21 and 35 living within a five-mile radius of a proposed store location.

Except for Atlas GIS, the programs allow you to lay out maps, data tables and data charts on the same screen or printed page. Atlas cannot print tables or charts on the page. Maptitude and MapInfo also allow pie and bar charts to be overlaid on maps as a thematic mapping feature. ArcView, MapInfo and Maptitude also allow image files such as satellite photos to be merged with maps, giving rich detail.

Atlas GIS has the weakest data management. Although it can read various common types of database and spreadsheet files, it makes a copy of the data for its own use, which means data gets stored twice, and the Atlas version of the data is not automatically updated. The other programs merely read existing data tables and will automatically reflect any data changes each time a map is produced.

All of the programs benefit from the ease-of-use features of Windows, but none is a picnic to use. Maptitude has the best manual--clear, concise and thorough--and by far the best tutorial. MapInfo rates second, with a good user manual. Atlas GIS has a loose-leaf reference manual that is clear but terse. The tutorial is thorough and well-illustrated, but it lacks a unified example that would help put tasks in perspective.

ArcView is very difficult to learn and use because it has no hard-copy manuals. Instead, it offers on-screen help. Unless you have a 19-inch or larger monitor, you can't really see the on-screen help files and run the program at the same time. The 75-page tutorial has no illustrations to give you a clue as to whether you're doing things right as you go along. I had to tediously print it out a page at a time to make any use of it.

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Business Computing welcomes your comments but regrets that the author cannot respond individually. Write to Richard O'Reilly, Computer File, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or message oreilly@latimes.com on the Internet.

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