Saturday, October 08, 2005

GIS & more bugs

I tried. Got the 60-day eval CD from ESRI for ArcView 9.1, waited for some 20 minutes to get everything installed, including all 484 .dll's into a single directory and also had them re-registered one by one to fix what could have been a failed install.

Tried to register online but somehow the installer couldn't find my default browser. Registration by mail takes a little longer but works. But even after all that ArcMap, ArcView, ArcCatalog and every other Arc something would give me a Runtime error one way or another.

That tells me that these packages haven't been tested well enough. And I'm not going to spend time beta-testing this product (if you pay me well enough I might) and try to figure out which other DLL is conflicting with those from the ESRI packages. Plus, I would have to spend way too much time at Microsoft's website to download their whatever newest service pack for Access or some other runtime library.

This only shows how important Open Source software became. Peer reviews, usability standards, common practices. In this case, MapServer is the answer for Geographic Information Systems and this bloatware, for the closed systems and everything else that makes software unusable after some point.

ESRI is a pretty large company, their website shows. Nice marketing, technical papers and the whole community that lives off their products and services. The tutorials provide good documentation and well written examples. But it also shows how much its software is getting out of control. But I'm rambling.

I did get something working: a free 49Mbyte download of the Java version of ArcExplorer 2.1 available at ESRI. That one works. You create maps by adding layers one over another and then export as image. That is the whole principle behind these GIS packages. The layers would start with for example a topographical map or satellite photo and on top of it you add street names, or trees and rivers, lakes and any other type of visual data you have. You can combine raster and/or vector data.

Like PDF's, ESRI offers include ArcReader which allow you to visualize maps, but not edit or create them. More features are added to ArcView, ArcEditor and ArcInfo in this order. For a feature comparison check this PDF. On top of this you can add analysis type extensions, a full list of them. Including ArcPublisher that let you create map documents (.mxd) and publish them (.pmf).

I like the visual approach to analyze data, looking for visual patterns from tabular data or text. For that Python and .Net packages are provided as Geoprocessing tools. It also supports Tablet PC's.

ArcMap is not a product in itself, but one of the tools included in ArcView, same with ArcCatalog. In the midst of all these Arc's it starts to look almost necessary to spend some hours in front of a book ("Getting to know ArcGis") or watching some of the virtual campus offers sold by ESRI. I guess this can't be something that simple if you want to make it work the right way, right?

Anyway, at this point I can see this as another waste of time that started with ArcPad for the PocketPC and the futile idea of creating my own maps to use with it. ArcPad does come with some sample maps from San Diego, following the same idea of layers. But the ArcPad StreetMap somehow didn't work with the Eval copy on the PDA.

ESRI also sells a whole lot of data on DVD: "ESRI Data & Maps" so, if you want to get stuck with them, go for it. Just notice that good part of this data is also available from USGS so you can get it for free.

ESRI also has the http://www.gis.com domain and a Web-based map server: http://www.geographynetwork.com/ used by its products.

It is really surprising to see software that could clearly be better put together having such a large audience, how people can get used to it. The branding issue also makes it harder just to understand what all these packages are about. And I didn't throw even half of it here.

Try their free version of ArcExplorer 2.1 and grab data anywhere else, lots of government offices and public groups provide their data in format compatible with this release. Cheers.