Sometimes a technology tool that a business develops for its own use takes on a life of its own. Such is the case with the interactive online maps McLane Environmental finds indispensible. While most people think of maps only when they plot trips, it turns out that maps can be used in any number of ways by any number of businesses. This is especially true as new software, combined with the Internet, turns the once static tool into a speedy, full-featured way to keep track of assets, projects, maintenance chores, and any number of other business details.

For Charlie McLane, principal of McLane Environmental and its off-shoot, MapServing, both located at 707 Alexander Road, maps are essential to doing business. He develops conceptual models of water contamination at particular sites and translates them into computer models. Each map combines the site’s topography with data on groundwater contamination to help McLane understand the direction of ground water flow and, with it, the potential for spread of toxic chemicals.

“The spatial relationship among data is very important,” says McLane. “The whole picture of what is going on at these sites is given to us by the data we see on maps.” The maps also serve as a medium for communicating information to his clients. By putting the maps on the Internet, he allows his clients to access them from their own computers so that they can understand the nature of contamination and its history at their sites.

These environmental maps are more than simple, one-dimensional pictures. They serve as a visual interface into a rich database of information. After putting his own business’ maps online, McLane saw that the ability to create maps and share them on the Internet had many potential business applications — identifying markets, examining regional trends, tracking the flow of raw materials or finished goods, managing facilities and equipment, and deploying and tracking vehicle fleets, among others.

McLane founded Mapserving some four years ago to capitalize on the potential of this idea. Then several months ago he launched an enhanced Internet hosting service to enable business, governments, and organizations to create maps and make them available on the Internet without having to deal with the hassle of operating a Web server and keeping a machine running and connected to the Web full time. Even people who were willing to set up and administer a server often had problems emerge relating to reliability and robustness. “MapServing is a much simpler option for these people,” says McLane.

Users who opt for a public hosting package pay a base price of $9.95 a month. A private hosting package, which provides a company with a private portal, away from public view, carries a base price of $29.95. A website integration package, which puts maps in a frame that appears to be part of a company’s own website, starts at $49.95 a month. Prices go up as map size, data size, and bandwidth requirements increase. A handy interactive menu on the website shows users how much they will pay. Furthermore, Mapserving invites all potential customers to test drive its map services via a free trial. This trial is a good way to gauge just how much service they will need.

McLane likens the launch of MapServing to a popular commercial. “I liked the shaver so much I bought the company,” he says. In his case it was a matter of: “I liked the Internet map server so much I said, ‘I would like to make it available to other people.’”

A good example of an environmental map application is the internship project that Joe Luchette, McLane’s specialist in geographic information systems (GIS) and Internet map servers (MIS), did for his master’s degree in GIS at East Carolina University.

Luchette worked with the river keeper of the Tar River in North Carolina, who had developed a community-based sampling program. He began by helping her identify areas for sampling that would reveal the ranges of water quality in the river. The second phase was to create an online mapping application, where the river keeper, her community participants, and anyone interested in the river’s quality could log on to see where and when samples had been taken and to retrieve the raw data from each location.

MapServing initially targeted the environmental community because it was familiar and its map-serving applications were an obvious match. “All environmental work is spatial,” says McLane. “How the site is laid out, where rivers are near the site, the water beneath the site that may be contaminated or may go into neighborhoods, and the maps of nearby neighborhoods, and wetland areas.” All of these must be mapped when doing a study about whether to develop a new water supply or about where water is contaminated and how to clean it up.

Every soil and water sample McLane collects corresponds to a particular location that is plotted on the computer map. A typical map of data from environmental sampling might use as its base level an aerial photo that includes roads and buildings. Then data is added on top of this base layer, with each type of data represented by a symbol. Each symbol also serves as a point of access to the actual data at that point on the map.

Each data point, for example, might represent data that has been collected at that spot for every quarter over the past 15 years. A blue dot might indicate each soil sampling location, a green dot each of 300 monitoring wells, a red dot a spot where samples of surface water and sediment have been collected from a stream, and a yellow dot the concentration of certain chemicals in groundwater at that spot.

Or an environmentalist may want to look at one snapshot in time, say of water levels of all wells in August, 1998. This data can be posted on what becomes a contour map of water elevation, with contour lines around water levels of equal elevation. “The pattern of contour lines can show the direction the ground water is flowing,” explains McLane.

Environmental engineers then read and interpret the data. They might look at how seasonal increases and decreases in pumping rates from an aquifer affect water elevations and the direction of groundwater flow. Similarly they might consider the effects of new development and the concomitant increase in lawns that need watering, which increases the pumping rate and has consequences for the water picture.

Where environmental customers are accustomed to using maps with their clients, most businesses are rookies, just beginning to work with maps to enhance their work. But McLane’s customers are beginning to realize the value of visual representations for planning as well as for communications.

One of MapServing’s customers owns golf courses, each occupying a couple of thousand acres of plants, trees, and shrubs that need to be maintained. “They all have schedules for pruning, fertilizing, and removal,” says McLane, and the map helps facilities managers track required maintenance for all plants. With an online map application, they can click on a tree to see when it was last pruned, but there’s another option: “The map can turn up in orange all tree symbols that need to be pruned in the next two months,” says McLane.

The web application goes even further, facilitating management of the business. Using information about which trees need pruning, the application can spit out a work order to be E-mailed to landscape maintenance companies for bids on the work. Another advantage is central data management whereby any change, for example, a new tree pruned, can be viewed by all concerned parties on their own computers.

Governments can also find many uses for GIS systems. A series of maps might reflect a survey of county roads, for example, including the location of manholes and storm drains along the curbing as well as the level of traffic. These can be used to help plan traffic patterns, where to put traffic lights, and how they should be timed.

MapServing provides three different but related services. The first is to provide an online space where a business that has created a map can upload it either for public view or by authorized individuals. The service is similar in some sense to YouTube, which makes videos accessible for public viewing, or Flickr, which does the same for family vacation photos.

But Luchette suggests that his service is more like Mapquest, where the user not only can post a map, but can also access data from this “live map.” In addition to seeing the route, say, from Princeton to his home in Baltimore and a street map of his neighborhood, he can now point to hotels along the way, click on the symbol, and get the name, address, and telephone, and perhaps even room availability. In the same way, Mapserving provides the ability to reap lots of information from a map.

MapServing can handle maps that require multiple megabytes. It can, for example, handle a map that includes each of a corporation’s facilities with many layers of underlying data.

The second service is to help clients design and develop full-scale applications, both for the environmental community and for any business that has spatial data. These applications, which use data from the map’s database, might generate quarterly reports, bid packages, and work orders.

The third service is to seamlessly insert maps into a customer’s website, even though the maps are actually hosted on mapserving.com. “They don’t know that MapServing.com is behind the scenes,” says McLane. “It looks like the customer set up a really fancy map. It makes their website look good.”

The business of developing computer maps started as a proprietary effort by individual companies. A company like FedEx, for example, would hire a team of programmers and develop fleet-tracking software.

The next step occurred about a decade ago when generic software was developed to create geographic information systems. This software is complicated, expensive, and difficult to use — requiring perhaps six months just to learn all the commands, says McLane. The software, which can range in cost from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars runs on mainframe computers under the Unix operating system.

Another problem with these older GIS products, says Luchette, is that a “middleman” software product, like Oracle or SQL, is necessary to interface between the GIS and a database management system. Since this older software requires customers to purchase additional software to connect the map with an underlying database, it tends to lock customers into an entire array of products.

The software is still out in the marketplace, but perhaps not for long. “The high end software has become dated,” says McLane. “It was where the industry started, but the industry has evolved, computing has gone to Windows, and more software is available.” In the meantime, he adds, its cost alone has priced out universities, municipalities, and many businesses.

About three years ago, with the appearance of Google Earth, maps started to move into the foreground in business thinking and a company named Manifold saw an opportunity to break into the computer mapping market by creating software that small to medium-sized businesses and other organizations could afford. Not only can Manifold be used with any of the major data base management systems without an intermediary product, but it is priced at the level of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, at only $400 or $500.

Manifold is already up to version 8, slowly building in features requested by its customers. “It has matured to a product where the price point is right, powerful features are right, and ease of use is right,” says McLane. “It is going to open GIS software to a much larger community.” Manifold wants to provide GIS software to the Microsoft Office community, so that anyone who can use Word or Excel can easily learn to use its product. This means that a community-based environmental group that had been priced out of online maps would be able to afford the more complex GIS packages.

Manifold, says Luchette, has undercut the older GIS softwares because it is as robust and powerful as they are and very flexible, and as a result has been growing in popularity among potential users. Manifold can be programmed by itself or can be built into other applications, and it is the first GIS application to support 64-bit Windows computing, which Luchette calls “really revolutionary.”

It is also good news for Mapserving, which uses Manifold, in that it vastly increases the number of potential customers for its services. Luchette is marketing these services by being active in several GIS Internet forums and attending a conferences all over the map, where he demonstrates the product’s capabilities. MapServing is also using more traditional advertising, including mailings and brochures.

MapServing generates revenue by charging its customers for both the type of service they use and for the level of resources they require in terms of map or data size and bandwidth.

Currently MapServing has about a dozen users and have had a few dozen more use its free-trial option.

Luchette has been with McLane Engineering for two years. He did his undergraduate work in geography at Fitchburg State College and graduated in 2004.

McLane grew up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the home of Little League baseball, where every August he and his friends would ride their bikes the few blocks to the Little League World Series. His parents met at a local hospital, where his father was a small-town family doctor and his mother a nurse.

At Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, McLane started as a liberal arts major, but wasn’t happy. After he happened to take a geology course for nonscience majors, he fell in love with the field, and in particular the study of water, rivers, lakes, groundwater, and hydrology.

After getting a bachelor of arts in geology in 1974, he moved on to Colorado State University, where he completed a master of science in geology, with an emphasis on hydrology, including stream and river flows and budgets of the water inputs to and outputs from a lake. His master’s degree project involved working with a sand tank, where he let water run through and erode the sand under different conditions. He then developed a computer model of groundwater flow that reproduced what he was seeing experimentally.

The next step was a doctorate at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he narrowed his focus even more to subsurface water, aquifers, wells, and water sources for cities and towns. For his dissertation he looked at the channel networks on Mars formed by groundwater seepage and photographed in the 1970s by orbiters around the planet. Working in the jet propulsion lab in Pasadena, he found that these river channels did not have headwaters and deduced that they had to be formed by seeping groundwater that discharged at the surface, forming a rivulet, bigger channels, and eventually a river.

McLane’s first job out of school was with the United States’ first high-level nuclear waste repository in Hanford, Washington, run by the Department of Energy. He was part of a group of metallurgists, geochemists, and engineers who were characterizing the site to determine what would happen if canisters were to fail and radioactive material were to escape: Where would it would go and how long would it take?

He noticed that the consultants he oversaw were having more fun than he was, and he was not crazy about the DOE bureaucracy, so he joined Geraghty & Miller Groundwater Consultants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He started a groundwater modeling group for the firm, which moved to a newly opened office in Reston, Virginia. Three years later he was introduced to the founding principals of Environ Corporation in Princeton and heard they wanted to develop a stronger groundwater modeling group. He started in the firm’s Arlington, Virginia, office and about four years later moved to Princeton.

In 1997, after nine years with Environ, he opened McLane Environmental, whose 11 employees focus primarily on groundwater studies, water supply, waste-water engineering, contaminated sites where chemicals have been released, and site investigation and cleanup projects. McLane is often called to testify in court as a groundwater expert and does a fair amount of environmental litigation support for law firms all over the country.

McLane sees no end to potential business for MapServing — real estate businesses, auto manufacturers, retail shoe outlets, towns that want public maps of parks and tax parcels. As the only hosting service for Manifold maps, says McLane, “we make maps available on the Internet to a broad range of customers. Right now, we’re it. We plan to add features and stay ahead of the game.”

MapServing.com LLC, 707 Alexander Road, Suite 207, Princeton 08540; 609-987-2708; fax, 609-987-8488. Charles F. McLane III, principal. Home page: www.mapserving.com.

McLane Environmental LLC, 707 Alexander Road, Suite 206, Princeton 08540; 609-987-1400; fax, 609-987-8488. Charles F. McLane III, PhD, principal. Home page: www.mclaneenv.com.

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