November 30


  • Editor's Introduction
  • GIS Shops in the Portland Area: GeoNorth
  • Book Review: The Geist Alas of Canada

Editor's Introduction

This week I continue my systematic reporting on GIS shops in the Portland area, with the first part of a profile of GeoNorth, the consulting company behind several public GIS implementations in that area; next week, I will feature the second part. I also review a fun and provocative book, The Geist Atlas of Canada. Plus, my usual round-up of news from press releases.

— Matteo

GIS Shops in the Portland Area: GeoNorth

Several public GIS sites in the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area are the result of partnerships between public agencies and GeoNorth, a private consulting company that specializes in GIS and in developing Internet applications and enterprise databases. Since 1996, the company has worked with a variety of organizations in the area, including Metro (the regional government), the City of Portland, and the Port of Portland. It built a land administration and leasing system for the State of Oregon, recently integrated the Clackamas County Sheriff Department's CAD (computer-assisted dispatch) and in-vehicle GPS receivers, and is currently developing for the City of Salem an ArcGIS enterprise spatial editing system that includes edit task tracking and auditing. The company's clients also include the cities of Tigard, Lake Oswego, and Tualatin, as well as Washington and Multnomah counties.

GeoNorth has just released its latest product for ArcGIS 9.2, CartaVision 2.0. According to the company, it "makes it easier than ever to publish to the Web the cartography and display rules defined in your .mxd file, while only requiring ArcGIS ArcView 9.2." and it is "ideal for publishing GIS project information or easily adding rich interactive mapping to your Web site." One of the product's new features is the CartaVision Dashboard, a cross-browser Rich Internet Application (RIA) that uses Adobe's Flex technology. It provides users with an interface to manage CartaVision map viewers. CartaVision 2.0, GeoNorth says, "also provides an easy to use REST API which may be used to communicate directly with the CartaVision REST Processor when used with an ArcGIS Server license."

"We build very specific applications, productivity tools," says GeoNorth's Marshall Payne, Principal and Northwest Operations Manager. "The majority of our effort, though, tends to be in the integration of GIS information with other business systems—such as maintenance management or permitting." As part of my continuing reporting on GIS shops in the Portland area, I recently had a long conversation with Payne and with Reggie Wilbanks, Senior Solutions Architect. Following is the first part of my interview; the second part will appear next week.


GeoNorth was founded and is headquartered in Anchorage, Alaska. (The state, Payne points out, was the original "hotbed" of GIS and home to the first few ESRI ArcInfo sites.) The company has about 24 staff in Anchorage, mostly focused on analytical work and data production, and nine in Portland, focused predominantly on application development, programming, and software engineering. "What brought us down to the Portland area," says Payne, "was work that we were doing for Metro and Clackamas County. They were really attracted to the way we were dealing with tabular databases and integrating that with GIS. They had a lot of Avenue ArcView-type of development going on and wanted to complement that with ownership query and reporting tools."

"At about the same time," Payne continues, "ESRI released MapObjects, which was a developers' framework. We instantly latched on to that and started developing our own applications. That led us to work at Clackamas County. From there we went into Web development with ArcIMS and started developing solutions that ultimately became MapOptix, which is one of our flagship products."


While Metro, Payne says, has "great people" and a "very innovative" GIS shop, "early on, it lacked a little bit of technical development expertise." Metro's Data Resource Center (DRC) was primarily focused on planning issues, development data, and doing analysis. "Some of the key applications we created for them early on were the first edition of MetroMap, which was MapOptix-based. That led to an extension, called MapsOnCommand, which allowed them to queue up some high-end cartographic products and a workflow queue-method, where you could get your product PDF'd or sent right to the plotter. It was an over-the-Web request system, which was pretty innovative. (We are now moving some MapsOnCommand functionality into the core MapOptix product.)"

As other examples of work that GeoNorth has done for Metro, Payne cites a disaster planning application, which allowed them to simulate disasters and assess the resulting damage assessment, and the Recycling Information Center (RIC), a desktop-based application that allows staff to direct customers to the nearest place for recycling certain household items, such as car batteries.

Port of Portland

GeoNorth also worked with Metro on a two-year cooperative project to implement a GIS for the Port of Portland. According to Payne, Metro contributed its rich data set, its metadata—which he describes as "awesome"—and its experience with regional data, while GeoNorth contributed its skills for design, application development, and analysis. The company interviewed multiple departments and reviewed their business systems and business needs. "[We chose] to go with the COTS-based solution, which was MapOptix," says Payne, "and that gave them an instant Web-based GIS solution. We also implemented editing tools for them to deal with addressing, which was important to them for emergency management and public safety purposes on Port-operated facilities."

AverStar Titan (recently purchased by L-3 Communications) was the prime contractor on the project. "We ultimately did probably the majority of the work," says Payne. "[Titan's] role was predominantly data conversion—converting CAD-based information into shape files—and then trying to develop processes and routines to automate that as best as possible."

"The Port had had a small group of GIS people, mostly in planning," Payne says, "but most of their spatial data was generated out of engineering and it was in CAD (computer-assisted design). It was more project-oriented than it was system-oriented. The project required moving them from that concept of a project, which has a beginning and an end, to an on-going solution that requires care and feeding, budgets, people, and data. That shift was culturally tough for them, because of the way in which they were used to working. We were able to integrate their engineering document management system, which made it easy to find spatially-defined documents, and hook up to their environmental system. In the end, the system came out great. Organizationally, it met with a little bit of resistance, but they continue to use it."

"There was a continuing friction between CAD and GIS," says Payne. "We gave them specifications for implementing SDE and a strong recommendation that they go to SDE for that environment. We also gave them recommendations for integrating with their lease management system, which is for all their properties."

Recently, the Port has issued a follow-up RFP, which was won by another company.

City of Portland

GeoNorth assisted the City of Portland in setting up its CGIS (corporate GIS), which "provides a corporate level of GIS service for the entire city, across bureaus," says Payne. It was started around 1999, when the city hired as its GIS coordinator Rick Shulte. He had worked closely with GeoNorth in his previous position, as Clackamas County's GIS coordinator. Shortly thereafter, three of GeoNorth's Portland staff and one from the Anchorage office also took jobs with the city. "In hindsight, that actually worked out quite well because, when we started doing other services for the City, we all knew these people," says Payne.

"The City originally used two of our solutions—a desktop one, CityMap, and a Web-based one, MapOptiX," says Payne. "That gave them a jump start. The first version of the CrimeMapper application that you see today was driven by MapOptix."

"A few years ago, they called us up and said that they wanted to brainstorm some ideas," says Payne. "They kept having to develop for both the desktop and the Web and wanted a framework in which they could develop in one place and then be able to use that technology both for the desktop and the Web. For the Web, they were not interested in going with ArcIMS. ArcInfo 8.1 or 8.2 had just come out and they wanted to start using right away the ArcObject technology, which pre-dates the concept of ArcGIS server. After a few brainstorming sessions, we came up with a developer framework that could easily be extended. From there we started developing what effectively is an extensible spatial server that they ended up predominantly using in Web development. It can do the miscellaneous tasks of generating maps and doing spatial queries, such as buffering, but it had an SQL-type of interface."

"During our initial brainstorming sessions," says Wilbanks, "we tried to figure out what types of operations they were doing already. For example, they would geocode thousands of addresses on a weekly basis, as a batch geocoding process. The problem is that, once you do it, the data is immediately stale. They also had some very complex stuff that was aggregating data to determine whether a permit was needed, based on some kind of spatial criteria."

To improve this process, GeoNorth developed a new programming language, GISQL. "The SQL syntax would be something similar to 'Select * geocode [your address]'," says Wilbanks, "and that would do a single, instantaneous geocode." So, instead of batch processing, they could plug geocodes in and always get live geocodes back from the server, one address at a time or in batches of whatever size.

The key, Payne points out, is that it was in real time. "They no longer had to manufacture snapshots of data for specific business systems—like the permitting system or the police department's," he says. "They could access the latest information in SDE from a Web-based application."

"The unique thing about this system," says Wilbanks, "is that it combines tabular queries with spatial queries in the same operation." It allowed city staff, for instance, to search for a property owner, then do a buffer operation on that owner's property, then use the result as the start of yet another analysis, so as to meet very specific criteria for issuing permits. "We were able to construct this SQL syntax statement that basically handled a bunch of different permitting requirements in the same request," says Wilbanks. GeoNorth did the tabular side first, he explains, to alleviate the problems of doing the batch geocoding. "Once that happened, they started to see the real power of this live-type concept. So we expanded it to also returning images, generating the maps. All the maps you see now on Portland maps are generated out of this GISQL spatial server engine."

"The cornerstone of the spatial server," says Payne, "is that it can be extended by using what we refer to as 'custom functions.' You drop one into the server and it immediately becomes aware of that functionality. For example, Portland Maps now has a way to look at zoning or other information in Google Earth. They are using GISQL to do this. They wrote a custom function to project the coordinate (which, here locally, is in state plane), determine the new extent, go into SDE, do the extract, project the data out, build the image, and then, via KML or KMZ, transport it so that it is accessible in Google Earth. It is a lot of steps, but it is an instantaneous request. To build that didn't take them long at all because they were able to leverage that infrastructure that had been previously built. So they could rapidly put something together and then introduce it into this enterprise environment that is Portland Maps."

GeoNorth is "in the back-end, doing the spatial part and the maps and some of the spatial requests" for Portland's CGIS, says Payne, who credits Phillip Holmstrand as the "architect" of the interface. "He's done a great job of designing the interface and the functionality. What made the City of Portland pretty much the pre-eminent municipal GIS site in the nation is that they took a report-centric approach to the way they presented information and it is very much search-engine oriented: I search for a record and I get a map page result. I don't necessarily zoom and pan and interact with the map. I am not presented with complex tool bars and query panels and things like that. It is very efficient, very well organized, and, if I am not familiar with GIS, I can get a ton of information very quickly, without having to know anything about a map. The map complements the information, rather than being the center of the information."

"The amount of traffic that the City gets on its Web site is just amazing," says Wilbanks. "Their first requirement was to move from MapObjects to ArcObjects. They told me that they had to reboot at least twice a day, because it was just failing. They were right at the beginning of the new ArcGIS. They really liked the rendering. Their second goal was to replace their batch processing with a real live data process. The third was to build a framework that they could use for both desktop and Web applications."

"The original construct that we gave them," Wilbanks continues, "was com-based, but it was developed in a manner that simulates a database driver, so that they could attach to this spatial engine through a desktop, referencing it through a database driver, or they could reference it through their Web-based solution on a TCP port, just like all of their other Web servers. It turned out that the Web server stuff works so well that they ended up shoving all their desktop applications through this Web solution."

"I don't think that they pushed the desktop aspects of that as much as they could have," he adds, "but that's fine, because the Web stuff was where they wanted to go anyway. Those were the things that they wanted and we were able to provide that through this GISQL running in a Web-based solution using ArcObjects, which gave them the ability to do complex spatial manipulation."

It also enabled the City to do "the higher end cartography," adds Payne, "which was also something they were attracted to. They wanted to simply have a better presentation of the map content. Through ArcObjects and ArcMap they are able to do that."

Earlier this year, GeoNorth "re-wrote some of the core portion of CGIS, got it into .Net, and improved memory management—basically made it 9.x-compatible and hugely more efficient, so that the up-time was great," says Payne. "We improved logging, so that they can now troubleshoot bad requests that come in. It has been a work in progress over the past few years."

What are the differences between CGIS's internal corporate functions and its public interface? "The presentation is pretty much the same," says Payne. However, the public, he points out, sees considerably less data content than city staff. Additionally, staff have access to "more query criteria" and "more selections as to types of output reports." However, "at the core, it is the same architecture, the same technology. Most importantly, it is the same, live data."

Book Review: The Geist Atlas of Canada

The Geist Atlas of Canada: Meat Maps and Other Strange Cartographies, compiled by Melissa Edwards, introduction by Stephen Osborne (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2006), paperback, 128 pages, ISBN 1-55152-216-0.

Not all the cartography books I receive compare different class definition schemes for choropleth maps, show examples of dasymetric mapping, or analyze the image analysis used to create a vegetation cover map from a satellite image. Some are just for fun. The Geist Atlas of Canada: Meat Maps and Other Strange Cartographies, an offbeat collection of maps published since 1995 in Geist, the Canadian magazine of art and culture, belongs in the humor section of my library—at least until I have a Canadiana section.

Each of the book's 50 maps—all in a "modified Geistonic projection" and re-mastered in full-color—displays geographic locations with names that fit a particular theme—such as conflict, erotica, or automobiles—per the editors' totally idiosyncratic and unscientific classification. The nearly 4,000 places, all indexed, include the following (with their category in parenthesis): Scratch All Point (entomological), Question Mark Lake (angst), Push and Be Damned Rapids (conflict), Lac Du Tictacto (board games), Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (haircuts), and Touch and Tickle Shoal (erotic).

The maps, despite different colors and styles, are inevitably repetitious, and the loose and arbitrary categories reflect the editor's sense of humor, not the intent of those who named the places. Moreover, some maps, such as The Gay Map of Canada, engage in questionable stereotyping, and many of the inclusions in each category are a bit of a stretch. Nevertheless, the book highlights a point which is as obvious as it is commonly overlooked: the historical and cultural sources of place names. It behooves cartographers and GIS analysts, who take such names for granted, to occasionally stop and ponder what possessed the founders of a town to name it after an author (such as Tolstoi, Faulkner, or Kipling) or a foreign city (such as Paris, Roma, or Sidney), or explorers and settlers to come up with such names as Empty Basket Cove, Worthless Creek, or Meager Glacier (the last three examples are all from The Cheap Map of Canada).

Compiling each map was essentially an exercise in toponymy: the authors chose a theme (for example, money) and then searched a reference, such as the Geographical Names of Canada, to find toponyms that fit that theme (for example, Dollar Lake). Besides the many people who collaborated in this project, the book acknowledges "Geomatics Canada and Natural Resources Canada for their excellent, publicly accessible database of Canadian geographical names."

Facing each map is a short explanation of some of the names on the map and a bit of geographical trivia. The atlas also has several fun appendices, including Demonyms. Did you know, for example, that residents of Moose Jaw were called Moose Javians or residents of Ucluelet were called Ucluelilies? Is it true that residents of Egmont are called Egg Monsters and those of Surrey are called Surrealists?

Finally, a paragraph from Stephen Osborne's introduction is worth quoting in full:

One of the earliest uses of maps in modern Canada was to show European farmers how pleasant it would be to get out to and travel around in the vast, possibly endless western plains. The Canadian Pacific Railway and the federal government, often mistaken for each other in that epoch, sent out hundreds of thousands of colorful maps inset with bucolic scenes and dotted with the names of cities linked by a dense network of railway lines; many thousands of immigrants poured into Canada and across the treeless plain, where they learned that the cities on the maps were tent cities and the railways purely hallucinatory. Even the mean temperatures printed in the margins were hypothetical—today these maps are classified as early science fiction.

About the Author

  • Matteo Luccio, MS
    Matteo Luccio, MS
    Matteo is the president of Pale Blue Dot Research, Writing, and Editing, LLC (, which specializes in public policy and geospatial technologies. He has been writing about geospatial technologies since 2000 for six different technical publications and was previously a public policy research analyst for a private think tank and for state and local government agencies.

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