GIS Monitor Sep 27, 2001
- GIS in the Trenches
- GIS and Related Technology Companies Contribute to the Cause
- Some GIS Conferences Cancelled or Postponed
- A Visit to NEARC (Northeast Arc User Group)
- Departments: Points of Interest, Week in Review, Back Issues,
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GIS IN THE TRENCHES
I received this submission from Jack Eichenbaum who works in the NYC
Department of Finance and is the coordinator of GISMO, a NYC User group.
It sets the scene in GIS in New York City right now.
“I am writing from Pier 92 (@ 52 St/Hudson, NYC) where the NYC Office of
Emergency Management has set up its HQ after the collapse of 7 World Trade
Center. I am at an Emergency Mapping and Data Center, which serves this
effort. We have about 15-20 GIS professionals and others with related
skills in a frenzied effort around the clock.
“It seems to take us much longer to get things done here than on our home
turf yet people are interacting wonderfully. The serendipity of people who
have been thrown together is giving us a social base to proceed with
long-term collaborations in the future for rebuilding and expanding GIS
capability in NYC. The food they serve us reminds me of elementary school
hot lunch a half century ago.
“There has been a tremendous outpouring of volunteerism, not only from
greater NY, but from Washington, Boston and Albany. We can't possibly use
all skills at this point but it sure helps our morale to hear from you.”
For more on “real life” in NY, I caught up with several ESRI staff who’d
returned from a week and a half at the Emergency Mapping and Data Center.
Tom Schwartzman, Dave LaShell and Rich Laird are all based at ESRI-Boston.
I also spoke with Mark Scott, who remained in the office to field
One of the first things they mentioned related right back to Mr.
Eichenbaum’s note above. Soon after disaster struck, Mr. Eichenbaum was
able to email his NYC user group members and ask for help. And volunteer
they did – from public, private and nonprofit organizations.
The mapping center took form as software was installed and data was
gathered. When I asked what gave them the most difficulty, the consensus
was: data. New York City has a wide variety of agencies, all using GIS.
Still, gathering the data, verifying its timeliness, finding its metadata
and exploring legal issues of distribution all took time. And, with so
many agencies coming together, it could be hard to determine which agency
had the definitive word on what was most current.
Even as those issues were explored, requests came in for maps. Different
agencies needed maps of the restricted area, areas of phone outages and
transportation routes… Some needed plots of imagery. Many wanted plots of
the flag being raised over the rubble – those requests were sent to
Kinko’s so the plotters could be devoted to maps.
As the GIS workers tried to keep up with demand and add new layers of
information, a system started to form. Requests for certain maps were
common, so those were plotted and tacked to the walls with numbers.
Requestors could simply ask for, say, “map number 6.”
What was the role of the Web? As things settled a bit, maps were added to
the NYC website, with updates added over time.
Although gathering and managing data was the most difficult part of the
operation, other parts were more straightforward. The volunteers knew the
software, so they could be put to work immediately. Plotters hummed day
and night, since the center was, and still is, open around the clock.
ESRI users were very understanding. Many tech support calls to ESRI-Boston
began with “I know you are busy, and this isn’t that important…” allowing
calls in support of the relief effort to go the top of the queue. ESRI
Redlands published a special toll-free number for those directly
supporting the disaster effort.
Back at the mapping center, the work was hard, with long hours and
“on-the-fly” thinking. After arriving home this weekend, one of the GIS
workers slept for 14 hours straight.
Rich Laird noted that he “came away with a new appreciation for the impact
that GIS and mapping can have in situations like this. Working with people
from the fire department, police department, American Red Cross, and many
others, I was continually being told what a huge impact the maps we were
generating were going to have in the field. Often times, they were simple
maps showing basic basemap layers. The sort of maps we see every day
without giving them a second thought. Yet for some of these emergency
workers, they were providing information far beyond what they would have
Dave LaShell highlighted the stark reality of building this type of
emergency GIS with a single question, “Could your agency put together a CD
with the latest data and metadata in three hours for inclusion in a
disaster GIS for your area?” If more agencies worldwide can answer “yes”
in the coming months, the Emergency Mapping and Data Center will have
served one more purpose.
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GIS AND RELATED TECHNOLOGY COMPANIES CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAUSE
Companies in geospatial technologies, and many other businesses, have
spent the past few weeks making sense of, and reacting to the tragic
events of September 11. Many businesses, TenLinks included, simply
couldn’t work on the day of the crashes and instead went home to be with
family to digest the events. But, as the days passed, at the urging of
President Bush, businesses and their employees found a way to get back to
work. Here’s how other companies reacted:
On September 12, MapInfo posted a message on its website offering
assistance with mapping, software and Web hosting of maps. The company
sent out its “e-news” on Friday, September 21 noting, “In light of this
month's events, and out of respect for all those who have been touched by
the tragedies in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC we have held
back on sending you our regular MapInfo e-news publication.” Space
Imaging, SPOT Image, I-cubed, and GlobeXplorer are providing regular
imagery. Intergraph made statements about their volunteer efforts in a
letter to editors and ESRI posted a statement on its website. Plangraphics
sent folks to NYC. I applaud these serious, calm, and respectful
statements. The GIS companies did GIS; the imagery company did imagery.
There was no grandstanding and no hype and no press releases.
I was also touched by the decision of Spatial Corporation (they are a
mechanical CAD company) to postpone their conference until May AND donate
the monies budgeted for the event to the Red Cross. Other companies
postponed conferences, but may not be in a financial position to provide
such a donation, and I respect that, too.
Then there were the “curious” statements. A press release from Digital
Angel Corporation touts its offer of beta “wrist watch type trackers” to
the New York Fire Department and the U.S. Department of Transportation. A
few things strike me about this. First the product is in beta. Second, the
technology was not requested. Third, there is no confirmation the
departments will use the technology. The offer does not ring true and
feels opportunistic. Instead, I’d suggest the company wait to see how the
technology is used, and report about it later.
Autodesk put out a press release on Friday September 21 saying that their
business was not affected by the attacks and their target for the 3rd
quarter would be met. The statement was obviously meant to assuage
investors and analysts. Did it work? Morgan Stanley downgraded Autodesk
stock, while Merrill Lynch maintained an “accumulate” position. On
Wednesday, September 26, an Autodesk press release offered to replace
software lost in the disaster and described its corporate relief program
to support the families of victims of the New York and Washington, D.C.
And, a final thought. Let’s take the lesson from the GIS and imagery
companies. The best way to react to challenging circumstances is to “do
what we do best.” At TenLinks we are trying to cover the situation by
finding and serving information of interest to CAD and GIS professionals
related to the crisis but for our specialized audience.
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GIS CONFERENCES CANCELLED OR POSTPONED
GIS conference organizers have had to make some tough choices about
whether to hold, postpone or cancel upcoming events. Contact your
conference host for details.
URISA (Long Beach, CA)
Wendy Francis notes: “I finally was able to return from our Caribbean
Conference in Jamaica last week.” Others were stranded there as well.
CANCELLED OR POSTPONED
Palm Developer Conference
A VISIT TO NEARC (NORTHEAST ARC USER GROUP)
Every year the industry press falls over itself to laud ESRI’s annual user
conference. Meeting with nearly 10,000 GIS users over a week is a great
opportunity, but meeting with 500 of them, all from your local area, is
perhaps an even better one. I attended NEARC, the northeast US version of
ESRI’s conference, for at least the eighth time this week. As an
investment, these regional conferences are a great value.
This sixteenth annual conference drew 530 pre-registered attendees and the
committee expected another 100 walk-ins. Recent events or other issues
prevented only 15 people from canceling their plans. Many of them, from
the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA), ESRI and Westchester County, NY were at work on the
New York City efforts. A few vendors couldn’t make it, and a few of those
in attendance had booths still in transit or stalled at a cancelled show.
Still, the mood was upbeat and the spirit of those working together on the
tragedy perhaps made the mission of users helping users even more timely
The opening plenary from David Cobb, curator of the Harvard University Map
Library, traced the history of Boston in maps. This was a great story that
would have entertained even non-map people. If you have a chance to hear
Mr. Cobb, don’t miss it. Per tradition, one of the ESRI senior staff
provided the second half of the plenary. This year, it was Rich Turner, a
member of the product management team. He reviewed much of the material
about ArcGIS presented at the San Diego conference.
I did find a few “new” tidbits of interest. ESRI is changing its release
schedules a bit by incorporating downloadable “service packs” to ease
upgrades. Full install CDs will be shipped when the changes are too large
for a simple patch. ESRI is following Microsoft’s methodology here. The
update schedule looks like this: Service pack 1 for ArcGIS 8.1 came out in
July. Version 8.1.2 will ship to all uses in November. ArcReader (more on
that in a minute) and Service Pack 3 are expected in the first quarter of
2002, with an integrated ArcGIS and ArcIMS to follow later in 2002.
ArcView 3.x will be supported “indefinitely,” with ArcView 3.3 expected
later this fall.
Turner spoke of ESRI’s plans to port ArcGIS to Windows 98 and ME. He noted
that the port to 98 was particularly challenging since the Microsoft COM
(component object model, on which ArcGIS is based) didn’t work so well in
Windows 98. He asked how many in the audience ran Windows 98. I estimate
about 10%. He asked about Windows ME and I saw no hands at all. Turner
commented that internationally, where they’d expected significant demand
for Windows 98 support, it just wasn’t there. It is possible, therefore,
that these ports won’t happen. If they are important to you, be sure to
let the company know.
I asked one attendee if they’d heard anything new in the plenary and she
mentioned ArcReader. The ArcReader free viewer was introduced in San Diego
as the solution for distributing ArcMap (that’s the mapping part of
ArcGIS) maps freely. I was pleased that one of the first questions
highlighted the challenge of ArcReader: that the data must be available on
the machine or the Internet. Put another way, ArcReader doesn’t work
exactly like Adobe’s PDF to which ESRI compares it. A PDF file carries
with it all of the “data.” An MXP file simply points to the data. Turner
mentioned that a phase 2 version of ArcReader would provide a way to carry
compressed data with the .MXP file.
I spoke with several attendees about the move to ArcGIS. All of them noted
that they had applications running in ArcInfo 7.1 or ArcView 3.2 but were
doing new projects in ArcGIS. There is no rush to jump to 8.1 and all
seemed comfortable that ESRI was giving them time to make the transition.
Of those who had played with 8.1, the consensus was that the new version
posed some real challenges but also some clear benefits. Business Partners
had similar sentiments. Many were still supporting ArcView 3.x
applications and were building new ones on 8.1.
I visited with Applied Analysis, a company involved in spectral image
exploitation, allowing you to get “more” information from multi-band data.
In particular, they developed the subpixel classifier which works with
Here’s how it works. Consider a pixel as the basic unit of information in
imagery. A value is assigned to the area on the ground represented by the
pixel. Of course, the ground may have a variety of different types of land
cover but this value represents an average of what the sensor “sees” for
that area. The subpixel classifier, by removing background, can estimate
how much of a pixel has a certain signature, say for tree cover. That way,
instead of assuming that 100% of the pixel is tree cover, the classifier
can assign, say, a 75% tree cover to the pixel. Of course, you don’t know
exactly which 75% is covered, but you do get a better measure. The company
suggests that with the tool you can get more from some relatively
inexpensive multi-band imagery.
The other exciting work at Applied Analysis is defining spectral
signatures for pollutants chlorophyll, and dissolved oxygen. These can
help track non-point pollution sources, such as runoff from chemically
treated lawns. It also may be helpful in tracking changes to the chemical
makeup of water sources to highlight contamination.
I also saw ID-CAD from IDS. (What an unfortunate choice of name!) This is
an ArcView extension that has some tools to intelligently bring CAD data
into ArcView; its strength however is a set of editing tools that work on
shape files. These include trim, extend and a variety of “snap” modes.
POINTS OF INTEREST
- The Southeast Regional Users Group (GIS) conference will be held October
28th - November 2nd. The conference will be held on the Gulf Coast at the
Perdido Beach Hilton in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
- I followed the GPS-based geocaching game Project APE used to promote the
latest “Planet of the Apes” movie. Now comes word that Coors Brewing Co.
has installed GPS receivers and transceivers in three of its beer bottles.
The bottles put out a signal once they are opened to alert the Coors
tracker crew, complete with cameraman, to the winner’s whereabouts. Is
this part of stupid GPS tricks?
- I’m pleased to report a TenLinks visitor, whose virus software was
up-to-date, informed me this week that a site linked to from our site had
the NIMDA virus--a virus that can be transmitted by visiting a website.
After some research, I contacted the company that runs the site and was
amazed that they’d known of the problem for two days but kept the site UP
AND RUNNING anyway. I immediately removed the link to the site from
My dismay at that situation was only increased when a friend let me know
that one of Verizon’s sites for testing the speed of a DSL connection had
the attacking virus on every page! He phoned Verizon; that page is now
“not found.” This is scary since Verizon is my DSL provider! Please,
please be sure your PC and any sites you control are kept virus free. The
new versions of anti-virus software are inexpensive and painless to keep
up-to-date. Use them.
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