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Mapping on the web using mapinfo products

C. L. Hogan
MapInfo Australia Pty Ltd, Sydney, Australia
Tele: 61-2-9437 6255, Fax: 61-2-9439-1773,
[email protected]

In recent years GIS and desktop mapping systems have evolved from the domain of the specialist to that of every day users. The evolution of component technology and the world wide web now provides the tools and distribution channel to develop simple applications which can distribute cost effective mapping solutions efficiently to large numbers of end users. This paper examines the evolution of MapInfo web products, their architecture and examples of commercial applications currently in use.

This paper follows the technical evolution of MapInfo products from desktop products which were once used predominantly by GIS specialists to more commercially wide spread web based products. Reasons for using the web as a medium for disseminating mapping are investigated as well as the technical architecture involved in developing a mapping based web site.

A number of web sites in Australia are presented as examples of how web based mapping is used in the commercial sector as a means of disseminating information to a wide variety and large number of end users. 

Technical Evolution
MapInfo Corporation was founded in 1986 and quickly established itself as one of the leading suppliers of commercially available GIS software. The first product to be released was MapInfo Professional. This was a desktop product designed to run on a single PC or workstation running on the DOS platform. A level of expertise was required to operate the software and companies usually had one or more employees trained as the in-house specialists. Mapinfo Professional could be customised by using the MapCode development environment which was a C like programming language dedicated for use under DOS. Many clients chose to have their applications customised in this way in order to make MapInfo Professional easy to use and more suited to their particular business.

With the advent of Microsoft Windows® MapInfo Professional took on an easier to use graphical user interface (GUI). A new development environment called MapBasic was released which allowed users to take advantage of this GUI and provide users which far easier to use applications. A certain level of expertise was still required to use MapInfo Professional and it still only catered to single user desktop applications.

The Windows Operating system also brought with it component technology such as Object Linking and Embedding (OLE). OLE provides a program integration technology which can be used to share information between programs. With OLE MapInfo Professional could be used to develop integrated mapping applications using standard development environments such as Microsoft Visual Basic (VB), Borland Delphi and C++. MapInfo Professional Map Windows could be re-parented or embedded into the development environment such as a VB form. This would allow the developer to utilise map windows in their application to develop easy to use embedded mapping applications which could be deployed to end users with no GIS or desktop mapping skills. Developers could deploy simple to use Executive Information Systems which utilised the MapInfo Professional engine in the background to provide maps to an easy to use front end application. GIS had finally been taken out of the back room and deployed to the main stream users. 

The introduction of ActiveX technology meant more wide spread deployment of component based applications was possible. ActiveX controls are programming objects which when embedded into a form provide specialised functionality to the application in which they have been embedded. MapInfo has developed an ActiveX control called MapX which is an ActiveX component that can be quickly integrated into client side applications using Visual Basic, PowerBuilder, Delphi, Visual C++ or other object-oriented languages and in Lotus Notes (v4.5) using Lotus Script. Developers can work in the environments they’re familiar with, and end users can access mapping through their familiar business applications. It was the development of products based on these ActiveX controls which truly took mapping applications out of the hands of GIS and desktop mapping specialists and placed it in front of business users via every day commercial applications.

The next major step in the evolution of MapInfo mapping products came with the emergence of the World Wide Web. The Web gave the opportunity to distribute information to large numbers of people who up until the emergence of the Internet were beyond the reach of many companies. MapInfo responded by releasing it’s MapXtreme mapping server software based on it’s MapX technology. This gave developers the ability to develop applications which could deliver dynamic mapping functionality across the web. End users did not need to have any knowledge or skill in using mapping solutions. If they can use a Web Browser they can use a web based mapping application. 

The latest technology from MapInfo is it’s Java based Web mapping technology called MapXtreme Java. This product allows developers to stream vector based data down to an applet running in the clients browser. Clients can work within the browser on their client machines and only communicate with the server when a new request for data is made or updates are to be saved.

Figure 1

Why Go To The Web
Applications running on a managed server network offer huge economies of scale – lower hardware and administrative costs, while dramatically improving application performance, reliability and security. Companies, who once found mapping cost prohibitive, can now offer it at lower per user costs than ever before. Applications and data can be installed on a central server and accessed from distributed client machines using inexpensive web browsers over either the Internet or Intranet.

One of the greatest advantages of deploying mapping applications across the Internet is that they can be easily maintained. If an application has been deployed to large numbers of end users the process of upgrading the application involves simply upgrading the application software and/or data stored on the central server. End Users will be able to instantly utilise the updated application hence avoiding the time and cost involved with updating individual user workstations.

Figure 2

Web deployed applications tend to be far more cost effective as there is no need to install client side software applications. The software is installed at one location on a central server and accessed via inexpensive web browsers. The cost and administration of client side hardware is also made easier as the hardware only needs to be capable of running a web browser, hence expensive workstations are not required as might be the case with applications which sit on the client.

Web based applications are by their nature very easy to use and in general can be used by anybody who can use a web browser. As a result training costs are very low as users do not need the in-depth training required of more specialised applications.

Perhaps the most important issues is that web based applications are easy to use for non-GIS users hence deploying mapping applications for general commercial use is very viable.

Figure 3

System Architecture
Figure 1 shows the basic configuration of a web site which utilises MapXtreme to provides mapping functionality. In this environment the end user accesses a browser to request a dynamic map. The request is passed onto the web server. When the web server receives the request it recognises it as a request for a dynamic map page and passes the request to the Application Server. It is the Application Server where the dynamic mapping application is running to process the query sent by the user. The application server creates a state for the user’s session. This state persists on the server between pages and allows site developers to save information such as map settings (ie: zoom, map centre, etc). Mapping requests are passed to the Map Server on which MapX is running to provide mapping functionality to the application. The Map Server renders a map as a JPEG or GIF image which is passed back to the Application Server to be embedded into a HTML page. The HTML page is then passed back to the web server to be delivered back to the user.

There are many variations of this basic System Architecture which can accommodate for extra functions such as Java Applets, geocoding etc. The architecture demonstrates the set up of a typical web site discussed here. 

Commercial Applications
Many commercial applications utilising MapInfo MapXtreme are already in existence as both internet and intranet application. The simplest of these is generally refered to as a “Find-the-Nearest” applications. In this situation the end user enters their address information into a form via their web browser. The application locates the user address on the map using a geocoding engine and then performs a spatial query to determine the closest services to the user address. A map is returned displaying the user’s address, the closest services and perhaps some related information on those particular services. An example of this is the Coles Supermarket Store locator (Figure 2). This Australian based web site allows users to enter their home address and suburb and receive back in their browser a map of their area with the closest Coles stores highlighted as well as address information for each store and the distance between the users address and each store.

Figure 4

An example of a more sophisticated application is the Commonwealth Bank HomePath Web site (Figure 3). This sites allows potential house buyers to find out facts on property sales prices in suburbs or areas across Australia. The site uses historical sales statistics to deliver the number of properties sold, highest, lowest, average and median sale prices for the past 24 months in the area of interest.

The users can locate properties which they are interested in purchasing. They can then explore the location of the selected property to amenities such as schools, transport, shops and recreational facilities as well as query the demographics of a suburb in terms of age, income, occupation and average rental payments.

One of the best examples of using an intranet applications as an executive information system is the Binboard application created for Vicgrain in Australia (Figure 4).

This system replaced a pin board with web-browsers allowing users to access spatial information and perform several thematic map functions. Area Managers and Executive Planners are able to visualise the locations of silo & other storage sites within Victoria and southern NSW. Managers and Planners are able to zoom to zones, districts, rail lines, or individual location for further analysis. Results are displayed as thematic maps with the ability for the user to access further information relating to particular sites from the background database applications by choosing ‘Site Details’.

There are three display options available in the application. These are either to (1) change the map display events; (2) thematically shade the sites within the map; or (3) select a site and view tabular/report details.

The thematic map options fall into three categories. These are:
1. Commodity;
2. Available Storage; and
3. Grade to outload.

The result of each of the thematic map options are to produce a colour coded map of all sites provided. The thematic map will not alter the zoom of the map window, only those sites within the current map will be visible until the user chooses to zoom in/out.

User can easily analyse silos in a particular area to determine their availability based on storage capacity and other relevant criteria. Using a simple browser interface a user can construct queries. For example the user may want to know all sites with ‘wheat’ or ‘all’ grades that are cleared and what the current tonnage is. If the user selects the ‘Map by Tonnage’ option the site symbols will be colour coded by a ranged thematic map. There are five ranges as outlined below:

1. 0 – 500 tonnes
2. 501 – 1000 tonnes
3. 1001 – 2000 tonnes
4. 2001 – 5000 tonnes
5. 5000 + tonnes

Alternatively the user may wish to perform a query such as “Show me all of the silos with a capacity greater than 5000 tonnes which are capable of storing Barley (given that particular silos are designed specifically for particular grains).

The benefits of this system include wide dissemination of information to a large number of end users, ease of use (no GIS skills required), current data available immediately and ease of upgrading the application (upgrades are simply performed on the central server and all users can access them immediately).