The Evolving GIS Workplace

by Larry Daniel

Vice President, Research & Information Systems

Castillo Company, Phoenix, Arizona

(Former Director of GIS at MPSI, Austin, Texas; from GIS World December 1993)

The Open Trend

In an era of emerging standards and open architecture, there continue to be increasing capabilities for integrating data from different sources. This enables teams to construct databases using any piece of available data, with diminishing regard for where software or hardware data originates. This trend began in the late 1980s and continues to surface in the increasing number of import/export utilities found in most commercial GIS.

From Product -Constrained to Multiple- Products

What may be an equally important development is that as data is transported between different systems, an increasing number of GIS users are using multiple systems to process the data. Depending on how data needs to be crunched, different systems are involved at different points of the crunching. Each system does what it performs best, regardless of what vendor manufactures it or what platform it resides on.

The end result is an increasing sense that if data exists, it can be processed in whatever manner the user desires. No longer are systems constrained within the limitations of a single software product or hardware platform. The data is simply transferred between systems.

The Bottom Line

Whether database construction will be a one-time effort or an ongoing effort, organizations should regard these events as important news, for the trends imply that they can leverage the most cost-effective data without regard to format and be assured of massaging it with the most advanced GIS features of whatever products they can afford to buy. It has become feasible to search for production software without regard to presentation capabilities, and search for GIS presentation software without regard to production abilities. The net effect is that data acquisition costs can be kept down, production activity can be performed very efficiently and the quality of end-use deliverables can increase.

Who benefits from these developments?

The chief beneficiaries of these developments are those organizations who must assemble a variety of data into a single database, and produce applications and output for a variety of uses. The trend toward open data exchange free users to shop around for data at least cost, and then exchange data between systems in order to construct databases efficiently.

Consider an environment where pointfiles exist in a Windows-based PC-GIS, census data exists in different GIS vendor's format on a workstation, address matching data resides on a mainframe, graphic information has been digitized on a mini-computer using yet a third GIS package and attribute data resides in a RDBMS. This scenario essentially equates to that faced daily at the GIS center for MPSI in Austin. As daunting as its integration might seem, more and more GIS users are operating with similar requirements and conquering the challenge of integration.

In MPSI's case, the diversity of data sources generally results from one or more of the following factors:

In other organizations, there might be other factors that lead to this situation:

To integrate diverse sources, users can accomplish much using generic import/export utilities. Often, however, it is necessary to process the data on separate systems before assembling the delivery system. This is generally because output specifications can require that data to be processed in a manner that can't be performed feasibly in the delivery system. For example, the delivery system might not be capable of efficiently handling data from different projections; file formats for use in address matching might not agree with the target system; data might require aggregation in manners not efficiently performed by the target system; or attribute data might need to be imported from a separate database manager into GIS.

Our use of separate systems generally reflects three major types of processing: we use 1) workstation GIS (Arc/Info from ESRI, Redlands, California) to align geographies of varying projections, we use 2) Windows- based PC-GIS (MapInfo from MapInfo Corporation, Troy, New York) to aggregate point data and as the presentation tool, and we use 3) custom written C, FORTRAN and SQL routines to perform data loading and reformatting. An example of our integration processes is cited below.

The Vancouver Story

A Vancouver database was requested to include site analysis data and modelling boundaries in tandem with Canadian census and address matching files on a Windows-based PC-GIS. To keep production costs down, the organization sought to use whatever internal files were available instead of purchasing data directly in the PC- GIS format. Our in-house data included AMF Files (Area Master Files -- Canadian Road Data), FSA boundaries (postal zones), Census boundaries (but no data), and a wealth of MPSI-defined modelling geographies. Data missing at the enumeration area level was obtained from a third-party supplier in the PC- GIS format.

Conceptually, the integration task was rather easy -- port all the information over to the PC-GIS. But in practice, the portation not only required transfer, but several processing activities:

We regarded the selected PC-GIS as an excellent presentation vehicle with reasonably strong facilities for aggregating point data. But the PC product really lacks the power to rubber sheet, align or clip geographies in any efficient manner. After assessing the requirements, it was determined that a full integration was best accomplished by going beyond the PC, and using the workstation GIS as well as developing several C and FORTRAN routines to assist in the integration.

The Process

The Workstation GIS was used as the primary production vehicle, but the integration process took on a decidely eclectic flavor.

Most of the geographies, including the FSA and census boundaries, as well as MPSI's proprietary modelling boundaries were initially digitized on mini-computer drafting software (IGDS, Intergraph Corporation, Huntsville, Alabama). We transferred these graphic files over to the workstation GIS format using standard GIS import facilities. Corresponding attribute data was present in flat files. This data was transferred into the workstation RDBMS (Oracle, Oracle Corporation, California) using the RDBMS vendor's import facilities. Once data was in the RDBMS, we made the information more interpretable by manufacturing additional attribute data, such as determining common business ratios and various performance indicators. The attribute data was then transferred into workstation GIS and joined with the graphics data using the workstation system's relational interface tools.

To create an address matching coverage, we needed to work with the AMF files initially found on an IBM mainframe. Those files were ported to the workstation and C routines were written to remove EBCDIC characters that had resided on the mainframe copy of the files. FORTRAN routines were written to reformat the modified AMFs to TIGER format, so that the data could be processed by the workstation GIS to create an address matching coverage.

The least expensive Enumeration Area data we found had come prepared in the PC-GIS format. In order to align it with the other geographies, we had to transfer it to the workstation (Unix) world. We 'exported' the points in the PC package to DXF format and then used network software to transfer the output from DOS to Unix format. Upon returning to the workstation, we imported the DXF file into the workstation GIS using standard import facilities.

At this point all the data was finally resident in one system -- the workstation GIS. We used this environment align all geographies to the same projection. Then we clipped the Address Match, Enumeration Area, Census Tract and FSA coverages to 'fit' modelling boundaries.

With these processes done, all that remained was to export the workstation GIS data to the PC-GIS system. Workstation coverages were converted to PC format using tools provided by the PC-GIS vendor. The resultant files were then ported to the PC-environment using the network utilities and 'imported' into the PC- GIS product. We QA'd the data and then wrapped up the process by using the PC GIS to aggregate enumeration area data to census and FSA levels.

The net result was a database, with all coverages cleanly lining up and attribute information available at every level. The integration was performed within 80 hours by two analysts. This database could not have been nearly as quickly (if at all) if we had only used the PC GIS. The client was thoroughly impressed that such a diverse set of information came together so quickly.


The GIS workplace and trade is evolving. The trend toward easier data exchange has led to an environment where GIS databases are constructed using multiple GIS and multiple technologies. This arrangement was once only common at the digital conversion houses. But with ever-decreasing data costs and an increasing array of GIS products, it appears likely that more and more organizations will lend serious consideration to this approach.