Computerized mapping, rich with possibilities, fuels growth of GeoSystems

August 09, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

When Nicole G. Brennan went to San Francisco on business in May, there were no meetings, seminars or client visits. There was indeed sightseeing, but not the kind that pleases tourists.

With her husband, Ms. Brennan spent up to 10 hours a day driving a rented Ford, correcting maps for missing roads, dead-ends and turn restrictions.

"It's a true test of a marriage to be in a car eight hours with your spouse driving in a city you don't know very well," she said.

Ms. Brennan tested her marriage as part of her job -- map-making, or, in today's argot, "geographic information systems."

While she was in San Francisco, her colleagues were driving rental cars in Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, Chicago and Miami, updating maps for the computerized data bases at GeoSystems, a fast-growing publisher of paper and electronic maps that is based in Lancaster, Pa.

Computerized mapping is a field with so many marketing possibilities that one challenge is just keeping focused, say executives at GeoSystems, a unit of R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co.

And the business of latitudes and longitudes -- the backbone of computer maps -- is fueling the expansion of GeoSystems, which employs 130 people this year, up from 75 last year.

Geographic information systems combine traditional mapping with other data, like population and income figures, marketing statistics or historical facts. "The map is your window," said Barry Glick, president of GeoSystems.

Computerized maps were born to serve the military. Geographic information systems helped guide cruise missiles over terrain to their destinations and helped the Army decide where to plant its minefields.

"We're just now taking the first tentative steps toward driving this technology into the commercial sector," said James A. Hilliard, a cartographer and GeoSystems' director of marketing and business development.

The rush by GeoSystems to update its maps was to meet deadlines for a new product unveiled as part of Apple Computer's introduction of its Newton message pad.

Newton owners will use a pen-like plastic stylus to write on a 3-by-4-inch screen on the Newton, about the size of a VHS videotape. The Newton recognizes the handwriting and translates it into typewritten characters, which can be outputted to computers or fax machines. The Newton also has a calendar and note pad.

GeoSystems provided Apple with the technology for a Newton software module that will provide users with maps of eight major cities, as well as restaurant and other travel information from Fodor's, said Chris Heivly, GeoSystems' director of personal information products.

A Newton owner can ask the system for a Lebanese restaurant that takes American Express and is in walking distance of a particular San Francisco hotel. Maps will produce icons, and each icon, when touched, will provide the menus and other data about the restaurants. The Newton will give instructions on how to get to the restaurant.

Those directions must be accurate, and that's why GeoSystems sent employees to each city, Mr. Heivly said.

"The street data base has to be smart enough to know you don't go the wrong way down a one-way street," he said.

Mr. Heivly said new GeoSystems software for Newton would include data bases about single cities as well as modules for cities in Europe.

Other relatively new GeoSystems products, all of which use the variations of the same data bases, include:

* Voyager, an automated travel-planning system. Many travelers have visited an auto club and walked away with an armful of maps with routes highlighted by a marker. The Voyager system can print a package of maps showing a travel plan and places of interest along the way. Included are detailed directions: "Go right (NE) on Brookline Ave. for 0.18 miles to Beacon St. Go right (E) on Beacon St. for 1.49 miles to Embankment Rd." A consumer version comes on a CD-ROM disk.

* Route Plan, an automated delivery-route planning system used by newspaper circulation departments and other businesses that need routing information. It maps the routes and shows how best to "get there from here." Customer and demographic information can be incorporated.

* Target Select, a map-based system for marketers. In one version, the software will display a map of a city and show, for example, all office-product stores in a five-mile radius. A user can look up the names of the stores, find out how to get there and display photographs and prices of products from the store's catalog. A similar product was tested in Las Vegas last year, with visitors calling up restaurant names and viewing menus on computers in kiosks.

* Atlases available on CD-ROM. GeoSystems' electronic publishing customers include National Geographic and the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. A student can, for example, call to the computer screen information on Magellan's circumnavigation of the world between 1519 and 1522. A red line tracks Magellan's path on a globe as a narrator discusses the journey.

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