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December 10, 1998

SIS researchers compile "atlas" of state's technological resources

Pitt School of Information Sciences (SIS) researchers have developed the nation's first technology atlas – an enormous computer database that shows the locations of fiber-optic lines, satellite dishes, cable TV networks, Internet service providers and school Internet connections, microwave tower s and video conferencing sites throughout Pennsylvania.

The "Technology Atlas for a New Pennsylvania," as Gov. Ridge's administration dubbed the project, is available on CD-ROM and the Internet at It contains more than 400 million bytes of information, equivalent to 10,000 printed pages. And it's still growing, as researchers add and update data.

Two years in the making, the atlas enables users to create customized maps of Pennsylvania's technology resources.

"Just as a traditional atlas indicates where a state's railroads and highways are located, this digital atlas reveals the technology infrastructure of Pennsylvania," said SIS professor James Williams, who managed the project.

Originally developed to catalog technological resources of schools, colleges and universities as part of the state's Link-to-Learn program, the atlas was expanded to include libraries, telecommunications companies, utilities, hospitals and governmental ag encies.

The state awarded SIS $600,000 in Link-to-Learn grants to manage the project and plans to spend $150,000 annually to maintain and expand it.

Coordinating project research, in addition to Williams, was Ken Sochats, co-director of Pitt's Center for Electronic Recordkeeping and Archival Research.

In formally unveiling the digital atlas this month (the state distributed 50,000 copies of the CD-ROM to school districts, municipalities and other potential users earlier this fall), Gov. Ridge said the atlas will help lure companies to Pennsylvania and make businesses and schools here "more effective global competitors." "Companies looking to move or expand in this day and age are just as interested in the availability of Internet access and advanced telecommunications services as they traditionally have been in the location of Interstate highways and train stations," Rid ge said. "Our ability to use the technology atlas database to showcase the wealth of high-tech resources we have across Pennsylvania is a big plus and something that no other state can offer." Williams said SIS researchers confirmed that no other state has developed such a detailed survey of technology infrastructure. "That made it hard for us to know where to start," he said.

Project leaders decided to divide the state into seven regions. Researchers from a state university in each region collected local data, then fed it to SIS, Williams said.

Nearly 11,000 organizations were surveyed for the project, he said. Schools, libraries, hospitals and small businesses freely volunteered information, but some large companies weren't so helpful, researchers found.

"We couldn't force people to cooperate with us. And as you can imagine, a few of the larger telecommunications companies refused to give us what they considered to be proprietary information. Or, they said they were too busy," Williams said. "The worst wa s Alltel, which serves most of Greene, Washington, Armstrong and Westmoreland counties. GTE, on the other hand, gave us everything we asked for." Bell Atlantic was reluctant to cooperate at first but had a change of heart, according to Williams. "Guess who Bell's largest customer is in Pennsylvania? The state government. So we went through the governor's office, and from that point on Bell gave us what we needed," he said.

Williams estimated that the atlas currently pinpoints about 90 percent of Pennsylvania's technology resources. "We'll keep chipping away, adding more [information] as we update the database," he said.

The project has debunked several myths about technology in Pennsylvania, including the notion that there was little fiber-optic cable in the state's sparsely populated northern counties.

"It turns out that there is lots of fiber-optic cable in the northern tier, much of it put in by utility companies to monitor their lines," said Williams, noting that MCI and other telecommunications companies lease those lines from the utilities.

Atlas surveyors found that Pittsburgh ranks 14th and Philadelphia 19th among U.S. cities in amount of fiber-optic cable per capita, as measured by miles of cable divided by population, Williams said.

‹ Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 31 Issue 8

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