In memory of Wolfgang Bitterlich, one of the early innovators in geospatial analytics - Between the Poles

By Geoff Zeiss

Last week a memorial event was held in Ottawa for Wolfgang Bitterlich, one of the early technical innovators in spatial analyics.  Organized by his friend Mike Comeau, the memorial brought together a large group of Wolfgang's friends and colleagues including many that I have known from the early days of DPA and Tydac;  Laura Bobak, the daughter of Wolfgang's long time partner Esther Bobak and whom together with her sister Nadya Wolf regarded as his own daughters, Giulio Maffini and Maryjane Maffini, Richard Higgins, Louis Burry and his wife Sandra, Anne-Marie Hogue,Terry and Iris Moloney, Adla Worobec and Graham Stickler, Wendy and Dave Branson, Peter and Erin Kuciak, Kate Dickinson, Bruce Thomas, Rob and Beth VanWyngaarden, Bob Madill, and Chris McBean, Fred and Joanne Meth, and Klaus and Judy.  Quite a few years ago Wolf moved to Los Angeles, so this was the first opportunity for many of us in Ottawa to meet Wolf's wife Nidia, and her family, Elizabeth, Danny and Priscilla from Los Angeles.

Rick Higgins who was master of ceremonies, provided an opportunity for other people also to speak about their recollections of Wolf - Fred Meth, who had known Wolf since 1971; Giulio Maffini, the other half of the dynamic concept/technical team that conceived and implemented Tydac's SPANS (Spatial Analysis System); Laura Bobak, who gave a touching perspective on what Wolf meant to her as a surrogate father beginning at age eight; Maryjane Maffini who read a letter from Michael Simmons who had been with Wolf at Tydac; myself; Danny, Nidia's son; Rick Higgins who told a very funny story about Wolf as the Russian ambassador in Sri Lanka; Adla Worobec; Louis Burry, Wolf's right hand man who worked with Wolf on the technical side for many years in the 80's and early 90's; Doron Nussbaum who also worked with Wolf at Tydac; Judy and Klaus, who played chess with Wolf in Vancouver; and finally Maryjane read a letter from Fiona Smith in Australia.

SPANS

To put Wolf''s contribution in context, Canada has been an early leader in geospatial technology.  In the mid 1960’s, the Canada Geographic Information System (CGIS), written in IBM 360 assembler and running on OS360 was developed under the aegis of the Department of Forestry and Rural Development.  By the late 1960's and 70s, and through the 1980's the Canada Land Inventory (CLI) was managing a geospatial database containing 2.5 million square kilometers of land and water. (The CLI database is still available on GeoGratis).

Richard Higgins founded DPA Consulting in October, 1973 in Halifax.  Giulio Maffini joined DPA in 1975 and together they managed to attract Wolfgang from the Technical University of Nova Scotia to join DPA, aslo in 1975.  As a result of the combination of Giulio's conceptual and Wolf's technical genius, many DPA projects were based on innovative modeling and simulation technologies.  In the early 1980's a few of these projects involved land use planning, for example, for Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and Sri Lanka.  Land use programming requires geospatial analysis, and Wolf implemented an early, but innovative, spatial analytics application based on a grid to support these projects.  In those days the only alternatives for printing graphics were very high end printers like Applicon and Calcomp, pen plotters, and dot matrix printers such as Printronix that allowed you address individual pixels.  I joined DPA in 1981 and to my recollection all of the graphics included in the Dartmouth and Sri Lanka reports were produced on a Printronix printer.  At this time, to give some context for the state of geospatial technology, IBM's GFIS system was storing spatial data in a hierarchical database on OS360 and ArcInfo, written in Fortran, was running on mini-computers.

SPANS logoThe early 1980's were an inflection point in computing.  I had bought and assembled my first microcomputer, a Heathkit H89 with a Z80 CPU, in the late seventies and I had just successfully completed a DPA survey project using my H89 at considerably less than using an IBM360 timeshare would have cost.  It was obvious to me and to Richard and Giulio that the microcomputer dramatically reduced the cost of entry compared to mainframes and mini-computers making it possible for even small companies to develop and market products for the new platform.  

In 1984/1985 Richard and Giulio, projecting that the spatial analytics market had a large potential and seeing the rapid expansion of the microcomputer user community after the incredibly successful introduction in 1981 of the IBM PC, founded Tydac Technologies to develop and market a spatial software product that became known as SPANS. 

The initial Tydac team was the combination of Richard's business acumen and Giulio's conceptual and Wolfgang's mathematical genius.  Later Louis Burry brought his programming and system architecture expertise to Tydac to complement Wolf's mathematical genius. 

The most innovative element of the SPANS system was the use of quadtrees, a mathematical approach used by Wolf to provide an efficient grid-based foundation for spatial analytics. 

Another major innovation was potential mapping, known as POT MAP to SPANS users, and as multi-factor suitability analysis to the broader geospatial community, that allows you to model and display spatially land use suitability for agricultural, foresty, industrial, and commercial projects.  The SPANS modeling language allowed users to perform very sophisticated suitability analyses involving many variables.  SPANS users believe that even today no GIS has reached the level of spatial analytics that was possible with the SPANS modeling language.  SPANS originally was developed and ran on DOS with high end graphics cards from companies such as Number Nine.  Later it was migrated to OS/2.  The first SPANS product on Windows was SPANS MAP.

I joined Tydac in 1987 and by the early 1990's Tydac was one was one of the top 10 GIS companies in the world with more than 3000 systems installed in over 60 countries.  In the December 1992 issue of InfoWorld, there was a very interesting review of several of the geospatial products that were available at that time including Atlas GIS 2.0, MapInfo for Windows 2.0, and SPANS GIS 5.0.  The review was very perceptive,

"Tydac Technologies Corp's Spatial Analysis System (SPANS) GIS is the most powerful program in this comparison.  In addition to its capability to incorporate both raster and vector images into maps, this OS/2 program offers an extremely strong, if difficult-to-learn, set of analytic tools. ... Surprisingly, SPANS GIS lacks some of the basic features one would expect in such as high-end program, such as address geocoding and a traditional database interface.  And the program almost completely lacks formatting features required to print high-quality map presentations.  For these tasks, SPANS GIS relies upon a lower end sibling, SPANS MAP, which is capable of loading and altering maps from SPANS GIS."

As I was the project lead for SPANS MAP, I knew exactly what the technical issues were, but what is perhaps only clear in hindsight is that SPANS was an innovative spatial analytics engine, way ahead of its time, capable of the most sophisticated spatial analysis.  To categorize it as a general purpose GIS was misrepresenting it and its capabilities.

To continue the saga of Tydac, in 1991 Flavio Hendry founded Tydac AG in Bern, Switzerland, so the Tydac name continues to this day.  In fact a few years ago, Flavio asked me to come to the Tydac AG User Group meeting in Küsnacht to speak on the topic "20 Years of GIS: From SPANS to Google".  The SPANS code base was acquired by PCI, the company to which Louis Burry moved, and is incorporated in PCI's Geomatica.

Alll of us who were involved with SPANS recognize that Wolf's innovative technical genius provided the foundation for an, even to this day, amazingly innovative geospatial analytical engine that moved goepatial analytics far ahead of the simple mapping applications that were typical of GIS products in the 1980's.  But many of us remember Wolf  not just as  colleague but as a friend.  Laura's recollections of Wolf were so poignant at the memorial event.  Giulio's and others' recollections expressed such a sadness about Wolf's leaving us because he was a friend.   My wife Ellen and I often went swimming with Wolf at Blanchard Beach on Meech Lake, his favourite swimming location.  We also remember having a great time touring the lock sites on the Rideau Canal with Wolf and Esther.  But what remains in my memory, and it was expressed so well in Laura's recollections, was Wolf's incredible loyalty to those near and dear to him.  He was a great innovator and for many of us a good friend.

Reprinted with permission, Geoff Zeiss, Between the Poles


Published Monday, September 17th, 2012

Written by Geoff Zeiss


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