The advent of the world wide web with its graphic interface and expansion
of the Internet has opened new avenues for geoscientists to perform their work.
The development of the web and expansion of the Internet provides two key
capabilities that can greatly help geoscientists.
First, the web allows visual interaction with your data. You can set up a web
server that produces maps and generates charts from your data. These maps and
charts can be updated in real time as new data are received. At the same time,
you can interact with maps or charts to highlight key areas or relationships.
Since the maps and charts are published on the Internet, your colleagues and
clients can view these updates with you, helping to speed your evaluation.
This last point alludes to the second key capability. Because of the near
ubiquitous nature of the Internet (at least in North America and Europe), your
data can be widely accessible. You can work on it from almost any location.
Perhaps, more interestingly, you can update your data from almost anywhere. This
means that you can collect data in the field and instantly update your data sets
with the new data.
Both of these features will probably alter the way geoscientist do their work
in the very near future. The combination of easy access to your data and visual
presentation of these data addresses some of the primary difficulties in
performing geoscience evaluations.
Geosciences, and geology in particular, are visual in nature. Most geologist
need to see a visual representation of data (cross sections, maps, hydrographs,
etc) to fully understand it. The requirements of the science (understanding 3-D
and 2-D spacial relationship) probably attracts people who are primarily visual
based. The geologist needs to see the outcrop and its spatial relationships to
understand its history.
This is probably why geoscientists, in general, were not early adopters of
computer technology. Text based input and table based output provides little
obvious insight into spacial relationships. The development of graphical
interfaces and good applications for generating graphics have allowed geoscientists to
begin using computers to display and understand the spatial relationships that are
key to their work.
Another fact of geoscience studies is that they usually require field
work. Data are not collected in the office or an adjacent lab, but from remote
sites away from the office. This separation often leads to delays in getting data
from the field and into a usable form. At the same time, transcribing data from
field notes into an office database may lead to errors. Finally, if errors
occur in the field, it may be several days to weeks before those errors are
caught, at which point it may be too late too correct them.
As you can see, the Internet and the web are well suited to serve
geoscientists. Not only does the web provide a visual base for analyzing data,
its distributed nature provides ready access to your data, as well as, links
between your office and field sites.
To date, however, the web and Internet have not been used as primary tools
for geoscience evaluations. This is not to say geoscientists are not using new
tools. Increasingly, to improve the efficiency and quality of their work,
geoscientists are employing GIS.
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are a very useful way for presenting
data in a spatial context. Data that seem incoherent when viewed in tabular form
become clear when viewed in a map form.
The most important step in developing a GIS is setting up links between
maps and databases. With these links in place, it is possible to query the
database by clicking on the map, or send a query to the database and have the
query results displayed on the map. Most of the GIS tools have been
developed as workstation applications and recently, many of these tools have
migrated to personal computers. Unfortunately, these tools require a significant
investment in equipment, time, and training to be useful. As a result,
application of GIS in geosciences is typically limited to large consulting firms
and large projects that can support these costs.
With the advent of the world wide web, it is possible to develop GIS
applications without relying on the existing GIS tools. Links between maps and
data are a common feature of most web sites. By clicking on a map or graphic,
the user is linked to another page or site on the web. This simple linking can
be enhanced to perform more extensive database queries through the addition of
CGI (common gateway interface, a standard for communication between web servers
and other application) scripts. Alternatively, database queries can be set up so
that their output is displayed in map form.
A strength of web-based GIS is that it can use common programs and links
between them to perform the various pieces of a GIS application. For instance,
queries from a web site can be handled by any database program as long as it can
be linked to receive commands from a web server. Similarly, the database can
send data and direct a charting program to produce a graph based on the query
results and send the graph back to the user. Powerful GIS systems can be set up
without the cost of purchasing and learning a dedicated GIS package.
Web-Based GIS is not without its faults. The primary problem is speed,
GIS relies on extensive use of graphics. Connection speeds over the Internet
can make heavy use of graphics intolerably slow for users. For most web-based
GIS will probably occur on intranets (internal web sites on local area networks)
for the foreseeable future.
In addition, the primary graphics formats (GIF & JPEG) used on web are
raster based. Raster images are pixel based, where every point on the image has
a pixel value that depends on is color. These images tend to be larger and more
difficult to edit than vector-based images. Some of these shortcomings are being
addressed by plug-ins for Netscape Navigator. These plug-ins allow users to view
vector-based images as well as animations with Netscape Navigator and other
browsers that support plug-ins.
Web-based GIS will probably never match the complexity of dedicated GIS
programs such as "ArcView & ArcInfo", or "MapInfo". On the other hand, web-based
GIS does not require the same resources as these programs. Powerful computers,
extensive training, and expensive site licenses are not required for a site wide
GIS solution. Running on relatively low-cost "Macintosh web servers", web-based
GIS solutions can run as clients on most existing computer systems. Using a
Macintosh server ensures comparatively simple setup and maintainance. Costs for
a site wide system are limited to the server costs and web browser site licenses.
ES Designs is at the forefront of developing web-based systems for
GIS and other geoscience applications. We currently have systems for remote
data collection, database queries, and simple GIS. If you are interested in
learning more about web-based GIS and its capabilities, please contact us at