What’s the Big Deal About Geography Network?

By Adena Schutzberg

For the past few years ESRI has been touting their experimental Geography Network as a place to share data across the Web.You can use it with free ArcExplorer and access data through the Internet using desktop products like ArcMap (available in all members of the ArcGIS family).During the 21st ESRI International User Conference, no less than three partners have signed on to support it with their data and services: Syncline, Tele Atlas and DMTI Spatial.Trimble announced support for it several weeks ago on the client side.

Why is ESRI spending its resources this way? Should users of other GIS products be concerned? ESRI has for some time done what it wants -- or more precisely -- what founder Jack Dangermond wants.Without a board of directors or shareholders, Jack and his colleagues call the shots.And, Geography Network, like ArcExplorer before it, was something important enough to take on.

When ArcExplorer came out, ESRI set the bar for all GIS companies.Every company had to provide a free viewer for their own format -- and perhaps other GIS formats.The list of free viewers is quite long and has changed how we use and share GIS data.Image viewers for the new formats (MrSID and ECW) are available standalone and as plug-ins for CAD, GIS and graphics products.

ESRI is now setting the bar higher yet.Now companies have to find a way for their users to share data -- or be left behind.ESRI does, of course, have a leg up with so many users in key government mapping organizations worldwide.Jack pointed out in his opening remarks that most providers on Geography Network are public agencies.Many of these have a mandate to provide data and ESRI has developed a rather simple way to get the data out to the world.

And, as ArcIMS, the technological foundation of ArcIMS grows into a more mature server -- soon to include publishing metadata -- Geography Network can only get more useful.With metadata searches available, finding the right data is no longer hit or miss.

So, how does this affect the NON-ESRI community? ESRI has worked to make Geography Network conformant to the Open GIS Consortium's Web Map Server (WMS) Interface.This means that any WMS client can access the data, even one from a competing vendor.But how many MapInfo, Smallworld or Autodesk users are willing to have ESRI host their data?

There are two things that are very hopeful for the Geography Network and the entire GIS community.First, ESRI and many GIS organizations have to be practical.One very sharp colleague put it to me this way: if you want it now, choose proprietary systems, if you want long-term interoperability, choose standards and interoperability specifications. ESRI chose the former and got it done.I'm optimistic that ESRI users and others will encourage ESRI to adopt standards and interfaces as they become available.The other hopeful side of Geography Network is simple: People use it and it works! As a privately funded experiment it did quite a lot to dispel fears of those working on spatial data infrastructure projects because it is a real life implementation of a true data-sharing tool.Think of it also as a worldwide, ESRI-focused, pilot project.

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Published Friday, July 13th, 2001

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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