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A Company Tries to Map Every Block in America

By Guy HalversonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 9, 1992



NEW YORK

WITHIN just a few years, every major suburban and urban roadway in America - likely the street where you live - is expected to be photographed and mapped, including street-address information never before obtained by private companies.

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The result could be a remarkable updating of geographic information about the United States - a modern version of William the Conquerer's Domesday Book. Information on roads, bridges, and other infrastructure details, plus material on commercial buildings and homes would be included.

The mapping plan is now being put together by GeoSpan Corporation, a geographic information company in Minneapolis. The privately held company recently unveiled a new custom-built van - called a GeoVAN - equipped with video cameras, navigation systems, computer mapping systems, and data-storage devices. By slowly driving up and down a roadway, the van can obtain a detailed visual picture of virtually everything about that particular block.

The innovative technology in the van translates the visual information into digital presentations; thus, a future user would have a complete representation of the actual environment on that particular street.

Users of such information could be map companies, businesses offering specific services or products, governmental units, and real estate companies.

The GeoVAN, and the information retrieval plan, is believed to represent the most comprehensive collection of information ever attempted regarding actual streets in the US, says Jerry Robinson, chief operating officer of GeoSpan Corporation. The two-year-old company was founded by three men, including Mr. Robinson, who once controlled Ultimap Company, another geographic information firm.

The GeoSpan plan has won plaudits from trade and computer publications.

"GeoSpan's work suggests incredible possibilities," writes Ann Badillo in GIS World, a geographic information publication.

Currently, GeoSpan has only one GeoVAN, a modified Ford Econoline van. The vehicles cost $200,000 with equipment. The Minnesota company intends to build 40 of the vans during the next several years. Six are now planned by next spring or summer.

Meantime, GeoSpan is working to sign up 40 independently owned companies throughout the US that will lease the vans and do the actual mapping work. The local companies will turn the mapping information over to GeoSpan in Minnesota. The gathered information will be proprietary to GeoSpan, but the local mapping firms will obtain fees for work performed, as well as royalties from all future sales of information.

Although several private companies do mapping work - as do federal, state, and local government agencies - no company or agency currently undertakes a completely detailed digital analysis of virtually all major roadways throughout the US, Robinson says. He says GeoSpan's information includes street addresses integrated with street maps; routing data for vehicles, such as speed limits; video images of utility poles, fire hydrants, intersections; and video images of all real estate fronting the streets, co mplete with addresses.

The US Census Bureau has undertaken what's called a TIGER system - a "topologically integrated geographic encoding and referencing" system that provides information on US sites. But the TIGER material is not fully detailed. Streets are identified, for example, but not all buildings in the files have specific addresses.