The increasing complexity of geographic information systems (GIS) can be both a blessing and a curse to end users. The amount of data available today from multiple sources provides unlimited opportunities to create information-rich visualizations, simulations, maps and models. However, each kind of software used to manipulate the data typically supports specific file formats, so if your data’s format is not on the list, it has to be transformed. Incompatible file formats and the need to juggle between software extensions or add-ons to access different functionality, all while dealing with very large datasets, can greatly add to user frustration and negatively impact productivity.

There are literally hundreds of file formats in use today, including ones for spatial databases, raster data, vector data and gridded elevation formats. There are also dozens of mapping applications that address the needs of specific markets, such as utilities and transportation, and offer specialized analytical tools, such as precision agriculture and fleet tracking. Although there is no one-stop-shop for absolutely every situation, software developers have been diligently working to simplify the process for the end user.

One example is Blue Marble Geographics, based in Hallowell, Maine. The company is known for its coordinate conversion tools that have been developed over the past 20 years, but since purchasing the Global Mapper technology in 2011, file format conversion, GIS, and LiDAR point cloud capabilities are included in its product offerings.

Global Mapper supports the viewing of dozens of the most common raster and vector data formats, such as GeoPDF, DLG, DRG, DOQ, DEM, DGN, DTED, DWG and many more. It also has extensive built-in mapping functionality, such as image rectification, distance and area calculations, contour generation, and provides direct access to a variety of online raster, vector, terrain, and geological data including high resolution color imagery and detailed street maps for the entire world from within the application.

“Global Mapper has such a wide breadth of features that it both complements and competes with a huge swath of mapping software,” said Adam Hill, account manager for Blue Marble Geographics. “The main advantage of Global Mapper is that it ‘just works’ without having to troubleshoot anything. You don’t have to use a particular set of proprietary formats. It is very commonly used as an interchange system between other more specialized mapping applications, although as the capabilities of Global Mapper expand, users are finding more and more that they can just stay in Global Mapper for a larger portion of their work.”

Bill Shields, a geologist and lecturer at Illinois State University, has been using Global Mapper since it was shareware at the USGS in the 1990s. The software has come a long way since then. “I often work with multiple data sources, such as DRG, DEM, DOQ, and geology layers that need to be meshed together,” he said. “The process is fast and simple to learn. Also the image rectification and topographic profiling functionality saves me a lot of time.”

The recently released Global Mapper 14.1 provides users with additional time-saving features, such as being able to handle massive LiDAR data files even on relatively low-end machines. The huge amount of LiDAR points that this release supports means that users can work with all of their LiDAR data at once rather than having to break it into smaller chunks to view and analyze. “The enhanced functionality of Global Mapper 14.1 focuses on increasing the speed of processing and viewing large volumes of LiDAR data,” said Sam Knight, director of product management of Blue Marble Geographics. “Our customers benefit from being able to handle over two billion points. Point cloud size has been a limitation to processing and viewing in the past, but now it is not an issue.”

As GIS translation software continues to adapt to the needs of the market, users will experience more efficient data processing, accurate map creation and optimized spatial data management—all of which lead to improved productivity. “Being able to directly open just about every mapping format that is out there, and perform a wide variety of mapping and analysis activities all in the same application, is a huge productivity and usability enhancement,” Knight said, “which brings complex GIS mapping to a much broader audience.”