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The Impact of the Internet on this GIS Community

"Silicon Surf - has the Sand hit the Fan ?"

Micky Allen
120 Grandison Rd
London SW11 6LN
Great Britain

25th Sept 1996


The information superhighway and the Internet made front page news in 1995, but there is now a threat of a backlash as the early promise of access to unlimited information sources has not turned out to be not quite as envisioned. However the danger of dismissing the Internet as "just a toy" is that of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This paper gives a very brief history of the Internet, and covers the main features available on it ranging from electronic mail, through mailing lists, to the World Wide Web.

Sources of GIS information available on the Internet are outlined, together with the various electronic mail GIS discussion groups that are currently in existence.

The final part of the paper outlines the process that was involved in setting up the AGI Environmental SIG discussion list on the Internet. This will also discuss the potential impact of the Internet on GIS professionals vis a vis issues, costs and benefits.

Things are moving so fast now on the Internet, that there is a time dilation effect. The effect is that a software updates in the real world (usually once a year) are compressed on the Internet into 4 releases per year. Thus an "Internet year" is only 3 months long !

In an effort to keep this paper current, an updated copy (together with relevant hyperlinks) is also available on the World Wide Web at the following address:-

The Impact of the Internet on the GIS Community

"Silicon Surf - has the Sand hit the Fan


In the mid 1980's there were a few thousand users of the Internet. Ten years on, there are now an estimated 30 million users online, with the number growing at around 10% per month. The explosion of users came after December 1990, with the invention by Tim Berners-Lee of the World Wide Web (WWW). This enabled users to browse a document and to jump from one document to another using hypertext links, much like navigating through a help file on a PC using Microsoft's Windows programme.

The initial web browser was purely text based (and still survives today as a programme called "Lynx"), however two years later a 23yr old, called Marc Andreesen developed a multimedia browser called Mosaic, that permitted images to be viewed. In 1994, Netscape was launched, and in August 1995 floated on the stockmarket, with a valuation at one stage of $6.7 billion! The rest as they say is history, Netscape now has around 80% of the browser market share, and claims to be the most popular software programme in history, with more copies in use than any of Microsoft's ubiquitous products.

A brief history of the Internet

The Internet owes its origin to the Cold War. It was set up in the 1970's as a military communications network, designed to withstand nuclear attack. It is based on TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/ Internet Protocol), basically this means that information is sent in discrete packets which each have their own address label. They can be routed in a variety of ways, independently of each other, but have as their prime goal that of arriving at their final destination, where they are reconstituted into their original sequence. Thus if a nuclear attack were to take-out part of the "route" home, the packets could still re-route and eventually get to their final destination.

Up until last year the Internet was based predominantly on a network of computers in Universities and Research Centres, however commercialism has finally broken through and more and more businessess are getting on-line. Hence the happy hippy "information is for free" days are now unfortunately drawing to a close.

The reason for the explosion of interest in the Interent is that it is based on ASCII, which means that data is portable and can be transferred from any computer to anyother, without any problem as regards compatability. Hence text or data written on a Mac can be read on a PC, mini or mainframe without the need for any intervention from a translation or conversion programme.

What's on the Internet

The Internet is in a state of flux and is made up of various tools and services, some of which are now falling into disuse as the user base of the Internet changes. It is in the process of migrating from academia (with the emphasis was on the command line interface, where utility and speed were key) to commercial users (where ease of use and the Mac / Windows "point and click" type of interface predominates). There has been a corresponding boom in the use of the WWW, as an easy interface to the Internet, and it is now very much a case of the WWW "tail" wagging the Internet "dog".

The main services available on the Internet are

  1. FTP (file transfer)
  2. Telnet (remote login)
  3. Gopher (heirarchical searching)
  4. Email (electronic mail)
  5. Newsgroups (interactive discussion groups)
  6. World Wide Web (WWW or "the Web")

Most of the above are more or less subsumed into the WWW, and although books have been written on each of these services, this paper will concentrate on the last three, as their usage now constitutes a large part of the user profile of so called "surfers" on the Internet

a) Electronic mail

This is the main service used on the Internet, and is basically a means of transferring, electronically, ASCII based text. It is a fast, cheap and reliable means of sending documents around the world for the price of a local phone call.

An email address is read backwards, so that "" means that the person is in the uk, works at a company, and is known as Zarathusa.

b) Newsgroups

These (either as "Usenet", or as a "mailing list") act as a global bulletin board. Participants "post" items, which are then available for others to read and respond to. There are both similarities and differences to their paper counterparts - magazines and journals.

c) World Wide Web

The WWW is based on pointing and clicking and uses a simple mark-up language (HTML) to lay out the pages. It is essentially, a huge database of information made up of interconnected webpages. A webpage is basically a collection of hyperlinks set within a page of text and graphics. The hyperlinks are coloured (usually blue), and once clicked on, change colour to aid navigation. Clicking on a link (either text or image) moves one on either to another part of the document, or else to another document somewhere else on the Internet.

The old adage that "a picture is worth a thousand words", is to some extent offset by the fact that on the Web a picture is invariably worth at least a thousand bytes! As a result pages with images can be very slow to download (especially over a 14,400 dial-up modem). More often than not dial-up users browse the Web with images turned off, whilst conversely web designers pepper their pages with images, and unfortunately often the twain do not meet.

A recent innovation by Netscape is the use of "plug-ins", these allow the downloading and playing of video and audio clips, viewing of CAD files, and even using the browser as a telephone!

The beauty of the WWW is that for a relatively small initial outlay, (under a thousand pounds) multimedia information can be made available to millions of organisations, businesses and homes all around the world 24 hours a day. This can be a very cost-effective marketing resource, and often an organisations web pages can contain large amounts of information of interest to GIS professionals.

The downside of the WWW is that it turns to treacle by early afternoon as North America wakes up and goes on line, this being exacebated when they take lunch and do a spot of surfing. The other bugbear is the presence of "dead links", when a document that is referenced by a hyperlink has either been deleted, removed or relocated to another site, leading one down a blind alley.

Setup costs and running costs

Currently there are around 140 Internet service providers (ISP) operating in the UK. However most of them are resellers who obtain their primary "feed" from Demon, Pipex or EUNET.

Unlimited dial-up access, using a 14,400 or 28,800 modem can be obtained for an initial set-up fee of 12.50 plus 10 a month from Demon (with over 70,000 subscribers - around 50% market share), the pioneer in low-cost dial-up access. They initially defined the "tenner a month" market and have successfully made it their own.

This price band is now the reference point that newcomers to the market aspire to beat. Much like IBM in the PC market, there are ISP's who, like the "clones" in the 1980's, offer cheaper prices than Demon or Pipex. Unfortunately the learning curve to get online can be quite steep, as the potential surfer fiddles with IRQ's, modem initialisation strings and the complexity of dynamic IP addressess, hence a lot of initial handholding is often needed. As a result the ISP market is starting to consolidate into commodity and niche, with resultant fallout as the smaller ISP's find that they cannot charge rock bottom prices and still provide adequate levels of technical service.

There are also companies such as Compuserve and AOL who run proprietary networks which allow access to the Internet. However most people now appear to prefer to have open Internet access, and it appears that these two companies may suffer somewhat in the forthcoming ISP consolidation.

As far as computer hardware is concerned, a 486, or it's Mac counterpart is perfectly adequate, this together with a modem (14,400 or preferably a 28,800) and a phone line is all that is needed to access the Internet. Internet magazines are now proliferating, and are a good source of information for newcomers (or "newbies" as they are termed). Some ISP's have links with cable companies, which permit unlimited free access in the evenings and at weekends. However their lines can be rather busy, as the calls are free, hence there is no incentive to hang-up and free the line for others trying to dial in!

Sources of GIS information on the Internet

The WWW is somewhat like a gigantic on-line reference library, where the index catalogue is not quite upto date. As a result various search tools or "engines" have sprung up which catalogue webpages and attempt to bring some order to chaos.

The search engines fall into 2 main types

a) Human intervention e.g. Yahoo!
b) Robotic web crawlers or spiders e.g. AltaVista

Yahoo works primarily on the basis of information submitted to a team of reviewers, who then classify the site into a variety of categories and subcategories.

AltaVista works by sending out a robot (or "bot") which sequentially and systematically works its way through the Internet collecting information which is then stored as metadata (data about data) in a large index file.

Both services are free, but make their money by charging for advertising, as they are frequently a surfers first point of call when looking for information.

AltaVista quite often lists pages that are "private", but this is the fault of the website hosting the pages, as it is akin to leaving the door of a room slightly ajar and a very curious cat coming in and exploring!

There are two other main ways of locating information on the Internet for those souls without access to the WWW (either because of hardware restraints, or restricted access - due to high connection charges or else fears that the office surfer will spend their time perusing pornography and learning how to make pipebombs!) both of which rely on human intervention.

These are newsgroups (or Usenet) - where an interactive discussion follows a particular topic or "thread", and mailing lists where discussions can either be moderated (with high signal to noise ratio) or unmoderated (where there is often a lot of dross).

Quite often a newsgroup (which needs dedicated software to access it) will have a corresponding mailing list (which can be reached using simple email), so for example the main GIS newsgroup is called "comp.infosystems.gis", and has a corresponding mailing list called "GIS-L". There are also vendor specific newsgroups and mailing lists, for example to discuss IDRISI products, and these are a very good source of specific information on problems that one may encounter.

Members of mailing lists are invariably helpful, as they are usergroup specific, but in common with a lot of the resources on the Internet, whilst they are tolerant of "newbies" with problems, they can be very harsh if one steps out of line. This usually comes about when there is a breaching of so called "acceptable use policies". Thus it is not a good idea to blatently advertise (spamming), as the purpose of the newsgroup is to disseminate information. If you are going to market something you have to be extremely subtle, otherwise you will be "flamed" (hate email), which not only is damaging to the ego, but may also bring down your ISP's mailing system, resulting possibly in your disconnection from the Internet.

Flaming tends to occur in October after the new intake of university students, realising that they have free Internet access, overindulge in an orgy of subscribing to every newsgroup that takes their fancy!, and proceed to inadvertently step on the old-timers toes.

GIS mailing lists / discussion groups on the Internet

(To Subscribe, send email to the SERVER with your name, email address and the
name of the LIST)

   *  Coastal GIS

   *  Biological Conservation and GIS

   *  ESRI products
          LIST NAME: ESRI-L

   *  Geographic Information  Systems for business and management

   *  Problems, solutions, etc., relating to GIS hardware and software

   *  Job vacancies in the GIS field

   *  Geographic Information Systems Discussion
          LIST NAME: GIS-L
          CROSSPOSTED TO: comp.infosystems.gis

   *  Idrisi support

   *  Intergraph products
          LIST NAME: INGR-ER
          TO SUBSCRIBE: Send a message to that contains the text
	'subscribe ingr-en first last' (without quotes) using your name instead of 'first last'.

   *  MapInfo software, applications and data issues
          TO SUBSCRIBE: Send a message to that contains the text
	'subscribe mapinfo-l' (without quotes).
(for a more detailed listing see "")

The AGI has also got a set of GIS Web-links on it's site at Edinburgh University ""

Other GIS resources

Public domain spatial data and GIS algorithms/programmes are available from the USGS, and there are also lots of resource lists on the WWW, which catalogue hundreds of pages of interest to the GIS professional. Some resource lists are just that, a long list of sites where the word GIS appears, others are organised heirarchically, along the lines of Yahoo!, with some measure of editorial input to assist in making the right hypertext jump.

Search engines are often used to compile these lists, they are wonderful devices, interms of raw computing power, but as they are based on computer programmes they can not readily interpret the results they get. Often they generate vast numbers of "hits", of which only a small percentage will have actual relevance. In the following example two different search engines(Yahoo! and AltaVista) were asked to locate references with the words GIS and Environment.

Example One

Yahoo Sites

Found - 35 matches containing GIS and Environment. (29/07/96)

Business and Economy:Companies:Computers:Software:CD ROM:Titles

* TOPO! Interactive Maps on CD-ROM - USGS topographic maps on CD-ROM for
 hiking,     mountain biking, GPS, GIS, backpacking, fishing, and
 environmental planning.

Business and Economy:Companies:Computers:Software:Mapping

* Facet - object-oriented  software for spatial analysis, environmental
 impact analysis, decision support and GIS.

Business and Economy:Companies:Environment:Consulting

   * Chambers Group, Inc. - environmental studies and permitting; urban and
 regional planning; cultural, biological, and marine resources;
 environmental engineering; and GIS and computer modeling.

   * Da Vinci Consulting - Consultancy, engineering, data processing, and
 GIS applications for multiple environmental conditions.

   * Geosoftware - environmental consulting, scientific modeling and
 simulation, impact asessment and GIS.

   * QuantaLex, Inc - performs environmental consulting, litigation
 support, information management, data validation, compliance audits,
 OCR, imaging services, GIS, PRP, 104e responses, administrative
 records, laboratory audits.

   * SWCA, Inc. Environmental Consultants - Providing NEPA documentation
 and other regulatory compliance services, cultural resource
 management, ecological research, environmental planning, and GIS

Business and Economy:Companies:Environment:Geosciences

* W.E. Kuriger Associates - GIS related services, bioremediation, and
 environmental sciences.

* WorldSat International Inc - Remote sensing/GIS company with extensive
 global data bases of satellite imagery, digital elevation data and GIS
 mapping data.

Business and Economy:Companies:Environment:Water

 * Almerco inc - Research contracts, consultation and training related to
 GIS, environment and distributed computing. Distributed Smalltalk
 programming, CORBA 2.0 compliant.

Business and Economy:Companies:Scientific:Geology and Geophysics:Consulting

 * Stone Environmental Network - environmental services, agrochemical
 studies, groundwater, geographic information systems, GIS,
 hydrogeology, wastewater, watershed management, municipal and natural
 resource planning.

Government:International Organizations:United Nations:United Nations
Environment Programme (UNEP):UNEP/GRID

 * UNEP/GRID-Arendal GIS and Map Database of the Baltic Region - A
 comprehensive database of  maps (graphical files; *.gif, *.tif, *.eps)
 and GIS datasets of the Baltic Sea drainage basin

Health:Environmental Health:Institutes

* Tulane University - Entergy Spatial Analysis Research Laboratory -
 provides state-of-the-art Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and
 relational database management capabilities for environmental health

etc etc.....
Example Two

AltaVista Word count: GIS: 229,169; Environment: 569,366 (29/07/96)

Documents 1-10 of about 60,000 matching some of the query terms, best matches first.

Modular GIS Environment -- MGE/SX

Modular GIS Environment System Nucleus (MGE/SX) GIS solutions for
 transportation, local government, and commercial industries. Features
and benefits |... - size 3K
 - 28 Dec 95

BC Environment GIS GUI Ref Guide - Scroll Option

Scroll. The Scroll option under the View button moves the viewing area across the earth,  but leaving it the same size. This option is useful
when you have. - size 577
bytes - 12 Aug 95

GRET 244 Beginning UNIX: GIS Environment

Course Code. Course Title. Semester Credits. GRET 244. Beginning UNIX: GIS Environment. 3. Semester Prerequisite : None. This is a beginning
 course which.. - size 1K - 9 Oct

BC Environment GIS Contractor List

BC Environment GIS Contractor List. BC Enviroment's GIS Working Group
 maintains a list of contractors who might wish to quote on Geographic
 Information... - size 1K - 28 Dec 95

Fire Growth Modeling in an Integrated GIS Environment

David Weinstein, Kass Green, Jeff Campbell, and Mark Finney. Fire
 Growth Modeling in an Integrated GIS Environment. ABSTRACT Research
 scientists and... - size
 24K - 31 May 96

BENE_HyperMail_9501 by subject

BENE_HyperMail_9501 by subject. Messages sorted by: [ date ][ thread
][ author ] Other mail archives. Starting: Sun 01 Jan 1995 - 23:24:59
 CST Ending: Tue. - size
  26K - 1 Mar 95

MA in Human Geography

MA in Human Geography. This course provides a well-grounded
 postgraduate education in Human Geography, with opportunity to
 specialise in particular areas.. - size 6K - 15 Apr 96

Jason Dykes: University of Leicester, UK

Beware: this is now part `re-vamped', still adding stuff ... Latest
 News! Back from the Alps, there was lots of fresh snow, see me fly
  left! More Alp... - size 9K - 14 Jun 96


Zip Code Update Released. Healthy Detroit Makes its Mark. Birthrates
 Decline for Detroit Subcommunities. Birth Records. Detroit's Health
 Profile. Cancer... - size 22K - 13 Mar 96

Mintai Kim's WebLinks

Home | HanGul. U.C. Berkeley  GIS Environment. News Culture Korea.
 Information Computer. Digital* Four 11. Infoseek. InfoSpace* Lycos*
 Net Search.... - size 10K - 15 Jun 96

etc etc....

As can be seen the two types of search technique offers somewhat different results. Yahoo! is far more structured, whereas AltaVista has ample scope for serendipidy - if you have time to follow every link!

In a recent development Yahoo! and AltaVista have combined their services. Initially you use Yahoo! to find you "sub-directory" of information, and then can switch over to AltaVista to carry out a detailed word search.

There are over 60 different search engines currently roaming the Internet, so if you don't find one that you like, you just need to press the "Net Search" button in Netscape to access other potentially more useful ones.

Realtime GIS on the Internet

One of the more innovative uses made of the Internet is by so called "screencams", where a digital camera points at a particular area (a fish tank, a coffee machine or even a field full of cows), and transmits a photo over the Internet every minute or so. Whilst the location of a cow in a field may not be that interesting (unless it had suddenly gone mad!), the state of traffic on the M25 most certainly would be, especially on a friday afternoon.

Real time GIS is also available on the Internet, where data is collected and processed for access via a simple web browser. Friend of the Earth have a site ( that asks for your postcode and then displays a map showing HMIP Chemical Release Inventory discharge data for your neighbourhood. Edinburgh University has developed a site ( quakes.html) which picks up earthquake data from the USGS and maps it. The City of Houston not to be outdone, has a site ( / traffic.html) displaying a traffic flow map of the city showing amongst other things the state of the Hardy tollroad, running north out of Houston, giving travel times and traffic speeds so that commuters can plan the most efficient route in and out of the city.

The UK government has set air quality targets to be achieved by the year 2005. Cambridge City Council has now started providing realtime air quality data on a dedicated website.

Data is published hourly on four pollutants

  1. Ozone
  2. Carbon monoxide
  3. Nitrogen dioxide
  4. PM10 particulates
The levels of pollution are displayed as bar graphs, with measurements for the previous 24 hours also being provided for comparison purposes.

The AGI Website (

The AGI has recently set up a website, which is hosted on a computer in the department of geography at Edinburgh University. As of July 1996 it had nearly two dozen pages of information about the AGI and related organisations, with various links to other GIS sites, plus an online GIS dictionary. The pages have been receiving around 500 hits per week, which taken in context means that the AGI can to some extent automate responses to standard queries, and free up its staff to be able to deal with more complicated one-off enquiries.

The AGI plans to introduce new services which will include the following:- GIS Notes, an Events Calender, an on-line GIS dictionary and finally a searchable directory of members (though if you thought junk mail was bad, wait till you see junk email - it redefines the word junk!).

The website currently also has sections for the various SIG's

Setting up a mailing list for the AGI Environmental SIG

The Environmental SIG of the AGI decided last year to investigate the feasibility of setting up a mailing list on the Internet. Setting up a mailing list is fairly easy, and is low cost in software terms. There are a variety of programmes available in the academic sector (majordomo) which are free, and in the commercial sector (listproc, listserv) which are either free (and basic) or cheap (and more sophisticated). These are invariably based on UNIX, hence need to be hosted on some form of dedicated UNIX based workstation.

Whilst the software can automate many tasks, human intervention (in the form of a administrator or "listowner") is needed to cope with subscribers who are unable or incapable of unsubscribing, and keep sending more and more desperate messages to the everyone on the list (rather than the listowner) pleading to be taken off the list. Interestingly again this seems to occurs mainly in October when the new university student intake discover that they have free internet access, promptly subscribe to all manner of mailing lists, and then get swamped in email!

In view of the above, it was decided it would be easier to set up a SIG discussion group via the medium of webpages, as the volume of traffic does not really warrant a dedicated mail server.

The Environmental SIG pages ( have the following data on them:-

  1. SIG members questionnaire (Full version on
  2. List of committee members
  3. Present and future activities

The pages provide an easy means of keeping in touch with the members of the SIG, as information can be posted that is timely and relevant with hyperlinks to other sites of interest. Also postage costs are significantly reduced as the surfer pays not only to access the site via their phone bill, but also pays to print off the pages, via their printer consumables.


The Internet is an amazing resource that has the potential to alter dramatically the way we currently work. Its ability to automate tasks mean that semi-skilled clerical work can be carried out more efficiently by a computer that will work 24 hours a day without error. However there are still vast opportunities for the GIS profession to extend its reach by providing services, that currently are perceived as being too expensive, or do not yet exist, to an ever growing field of technologically literate individuals.

It may be that the definition of GIS may need to be redefined, for example it is now feasible to link up a cheap digital camera to take pictures of the outside of your home every minute or so. These can be transmitted across to Australia for the price of a local phonecall, where someone can sit and monitor them with a web browser to see if you are being burgled!

Following on from this it can only be a matter of time before someone implements "GrannyWatch" - a simple concept - you are worried about your aged parents having a fall and unable to raise the alarm. So you just rig up a digital camera, run a video feed to the Internet, pay someone in the Western Isles to watch and call you if there is a problem. Perfect as long as they are not too engrossed in the final episode of Inspector Morse!

Career Biography

Micky Allen graduated from Keele University with a BSc (joint honours) in geology and chemistry. He initially worked as a mining geologist in Zambia, then after gaining an MSc at the Royal School of Mines, worked in mineral exploration in Tanzania and Saudi Arabia.

Following an MBA at INSEAD, he worked for which serves as a resource for information on contaminated land in the UK.


Pannon Marble Industries - parts A, B, C, D.
Allen M, Story J.
The use of GIS in the environmental assessment of the WW2 mustard gas factory at Ergethan in the former East Germany.
Allen M, Schumacher C, Kutz A.
AGI 94 Conference

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