TITAN: The Geospatial Babel Fish

July 9, 2008  - By

About 10 years ago PBS aired a very funny science fiction comedy called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams. The serial radio programs, which originated in Great Britain, were about two characters who traveled the universe by bumming rides on spacecraft. One curiosity highlighted in the second episode was the Tower of Babel-inspired “Babel fish,” which was described as (spoken with an authoritative British accent):

Small, yellow, and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language.

We’ve all been looking for a Babel fish for geospatial data. In the early years of GIS, sharing data was very painful. The most glaring difficulty was the issue of projections. You had to know the datum and projection the data were created in and modify it — or your GIS environment — to match. More recently, thanks to that uncomfortable word “metadata” and more advanced GIS software such as ArcGIS, users were able to import GIS data and re-project it on the fly.

This was a much easier method, but still messy on occasion. ArcGIS opened the door to importing and sharing spatial data across networks, and even the Web. You could actually create GIS projects that accessed data layers from remote servers and sources, ensuring that you had the latest version every time you opened a project. But this was still an environment for GIS professionals and not easy to do.

Recently, Google Earth changed the picture by creating a very easy-to-use spatial viewing environment. This really opened the eyes of the world and introduced non-GIS people to the world of spatial data. The Google environment was simple to understand, but somewhat limited to viewing spatial data and imagery with no real spatial analysis capability. It was especially good at organizing spatial data for visualization.

ESRI soon followed, offering a more robust viewer that could be best described as a professional version of Google Earth with spatial analysis capability. However, one still had to suffer through the zoom-in globe. As good as life became with both Google Earth and ArcExplorer, there was still room for improvement. Then, several months ago, I saw a demonstration of ERDAS TITAN (formerly known as Leica TITAN).

TITAN takes spatial data sharing, viewing, and publishing to a new level. It seems to magically ingest almost any spatial data format, read it, use it, and publish it back out in any format — and do so quickly. It does for spatial data what the Babel fish did for language and speech. A universal translator designed for sharing and the sharing environment is completely controllable via permissions, so you don’t lose data ownership. TITAN delivers data via geospatial Web services, such as Web Map Services (WMS), permitting you to view spatial data without actually getting access to the source dataset.

Most early adopters seem to be data providers and emergency response organizations, because this new globe solves their most critical problem: publishing data with permissions while retaining digital ownership rights (data providers) and ingesting, organizing, and using spatial data from many disparate sources very quickly (emergency management). With TITAN, emergency management organizations and workers have ready access to real-time data appropriate for situational awareness and response management. Communication using chat and collaboration via 3D interactive presentations is easily implemented for disaster participants. Key decision-makers have access to the same common operational picture with up-to-date information.

The datasets are searchable, accessible, and viewable by a broad spectrum of disaster workers using a broad array of applications. Data creators can publish geo-products with permissions from the field for direct and rapid delivery without format translation problems. Licensed data is controlled with participants accessing current content as well as historic and pre-disaster data.

 A screen shot of the TITAN environment, showing the Geospatial Instant Messenger chat window. Image courtesy of ERDAS.

A screenshot of the TITAN environment, showing the Geospatial Instant Messenger chat window. Image courtesy of ERDAS.


Amy Zeller of ERDAS shared some of the features and applications of TITAN, specifically:

  • TITAN is a scalable, dynamic, rapidly deployable, online, real-time data sharing solution, supporting data publishing and delivery into many geospatial applications.
  • TITAN enables “real-time” shared viewing of a common operating picture vital to effective communication during an emergency response.
  • Users can create and share a “MyWorld,” a geographically enabled space to upload data, set permissions, and share content with other network users. This “geospatial presentation space” means sharing crucial geospatial data, notations, images, and other location-based content in a collaborative, interactive 3D space with thousands of users across the globe. This feature, plus instant messenger chat, enables real-time, effective communication and collaboration among disaster participants within a common operational picture.
  • By using TITAN, authors of data become servers of data, publishing geo-products immediately with permissions and from the field.
  • Data publishing is facilitated while digital ownership rights are protected. TITAN enables ingestion of data in various file formats and delivers data via different means, including geospatial Web services (e.g., WMS), which means that only a portrayal of the data is distributed and the data owner still has full control over the actual dataset.
  • Data consumers can rapidly pull data from unlimited public and private sources, directly into a variety of applications including Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth, ERDAS IMAGINE, ArcMap, ArcGIS Explorer, MapInfo, GeoMedia, and AutoCad.
  • TITAN is interoperable and can be used in conjunction with static, centralized data stores and solutions — but it does not need to rely only on static, centralized data stores!
  • A TITAN GeoHub enables internal and external permission-based data distribution for disaster management. With a GeoHub, stakeholders can rapidly be enabled to participate in publishing and consuming data. A GeoHub is ideal for implementation at a local government operations center or state EOC, yet flexible and sturdy enough to be set up and configured quickly and run from a field office.
  • The TITAN solution is a scalable solution and provides support for large numbers of users over a broad geography.
  • Users can connect to ERDAS TITAN via a cell phone, aircard, and laptop.

You may remember that my February article was about Virtual Alabama, which is a Google-based state emergency response spatial visual collaboration environment. Virtual Alabama has received national interest, and the evolution of VA will be a plenary session topic at the DOJ, DHS, and DOD-sponsored Critical Incident Preparedness Conference in October. Virtual Alabama was the first application that came to mind when I saw the potential of TITAN. In addition to enabling access to current, rapidly developing content in disaster situations, TITAN ties into historic and pre-disaster data and content that is already made available via various data management and delivery solutions.

This entire data sharing and delivery environment is very complex, with connectivity issues, security concerns, and nuances of performance. I know that there are many software products and custom applications that accomplish what TITAN does, but I haven’t seen an off-the-shelf product that matches TITAN’s capability. Let me know if you have seen one, so I can share it with our readers. In the meantime, TITAN deserves a serious look.

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About the Author: Art Kalinski

A career Naval Officer, Art Kalinski established the Navy’s first geographic information system (GIS) in the mid-1980s. Completing a post-graduate degree in GIS at the University of North Carolina, he was the Atlanta Regional Commission GIS Manager from 1993 to 2007. He pioneered the use of oblique imagery for public safety and participated in numerous disaster-response actions including GIS/imagery support of the National Guard during Hurricane Katrina; the Urban Area Security Initiative; a NIMS-based field exercise in Atlanta; and a fully manned hardware-equipped joint disaster response exercise in New York City. Kalinski retired early from ARC to join Pictometry International to direct military projects using oblique imagery, which led to him joining SPGlobal Inc. He has written articles for numerous geospatial publications, and authors a monthly column for the GeoIntelligence Insider e-newsletter aimed at federal GIS users.