Atlas GIS

Gary Noonan carabid at MPM1.MPM.EDU
Wed Sep 13 09:12:58 CDT 1995

At 08:08 PM 9/12/95 -0600, Hesiquio Benitez Diaz wrote:
>Does any body can give to me technical information about Atlas GIS, or an
>e-mail adress to contact providers?
>Museo de Zoologia "Alfonso L. Herrera" * (525) 5-54-43-32 CONABIO       *
>Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico* (525) 6-76-09-47 HOME          *
>Facultad de Ciencias, A.P. 70-399      * e-mail hbd at*
>Mexico D.F. 04510                      *                                *
>        I reviewed the DOS version of Atlas GIS in  Noonan, G. R. 1995.
Atlas GIS 2.01 for DOS. Systematic Biology, 44:273-277.
        I would now recommend the Windows version of the program because it
now has the digitizing capability that was lacking when I reviewed the DOS
version. New enhancements to Atlas GIS will all be made to the Windows version.
         The editor of Systematic Biology kindly gave me permission to
distribute copies over the Internet of the review. Attached at the end of
this message is the review. The attached review differs from the final
published version by lacking several grammatical improvements made by the
journal editor.  There is also an Internet E-mail group that consists of
users of Atlas GIS. The E-mail address of the list server is
agis-l at To join send an E-mail message not that address but
rather to the following: Majordomo at  Do not put anything in the
subject field of your message. The entire text of your message should be
        subscribe agis-l  hbd at
        Hope this information helps.

Text of Atlas GIS review [differs from published version in a few places as
regards grammatical matters]
        Atlas GIS 2.01 for DOS.--Strategic Mapping Inc., 3135 Kifer Road, Santa
Clara, CA 95051, (408) 970-9600. $495 for program. Optional modules include:
Import/Export Module, $295; Script Module, $495; Atlas version of Digital
Chart of the World, 4 CD-ROM disks for non elevation data, ($795 per disk or
$ 2,995 for set) and $750 for CD-ROM with elevation data.

        A recommendation of SYSTEMATICS AGENDA 2000 (Anonymous, 1994) is that
systematists use GIS (geographical information systems) programs to study
geographical distributions of organisms. Atlas GIS is powerful GIS program
with numerous useful features for systematists and ecologists. It makes
excellent maps of species' distributions. Map views are easy to manipulate
and can show features such as sites where a species was collected, elevation
or vegetation regions and grid systems. The program does geographical
analyses that are impossible or extremely difficult without using GIS
software. Examples include, obtaining the maximum area occupied by a
species, calculating the percent of such area overlapped by a sister
species, calculating the percent of such area once covered by ice or
permafrost during a previous glacial period, obtaining total number of
specimens or species found in a given elevation or plant zone and
calculating percent of species area covered by various types of habitats.
        Atlas GIS uses four major types of files, geography, datapoint, attribute
and mapfile. A set of geography files contains the graphical features
(coastlines, political boundaries, elevation regions, etc.) comprising a
given map. All map features are organized into layers, and a single set of
geography files can have up to 250 layers. There are three types of layers,
lines in line layers, closed polygons in region layers and points in point
layers. Map features can be copied or moved from layer to layer.
        The arrangement of features into layers allows many options for displaying
and printing. Display of individual layers can be turned on or off or set to
be visible only at certain scales. Graphics settings can be established for
each layer. Colors can be chosen for lines or boundaries of regions, symbols
and fills. Lines or region boundaries can be one of 10 different styles
(solid, dotted, double etc.) and one of 24 different fill patterns ( lines
each composed of many parallel horizontal lines, etc.). There are 26
different fill patterns for regions. The appearance of each region fill
pattern can be greatly modified by selecting a percentage fill from zero to
100 percent. Output of maps to printers or files reflects the graphical
choices made for the geography layers.
        The second major file type used by Atlas GIS is a dBASE compatible
datapoint file. Each record contains a latitude and longitude field and
various fields with relevant information for a given point on the map. For
example, a datapoint file might also have fields for species name,
geographical data, number of specimens, ecological data and numeric fields
for character state or other data. While Atlas GIS allows the creation of
datapoint files and entry of data into them, these operations are more
easily done in commercial database programs (dBASE, FoxPro, Rbase etc.) or
the RESEARCH INTERFACE (Noonan, 1994).
        Attribute files are the third major file type. These dBASE compatible files
have information about individual map features. For example, if a map has a
grid layer, an attribute file may contain the number of species for each
cell or region in the grid.
        The fourth major file type is a mapfile that stores user selected settings.
Possible settings include names of the geography, datapoint and attribute
files to be used with a given map, graphics settings for individual layers,
the view selected for the map and miscellaneous settings used in
geographical analysis.
        When Atlas GIS is first started, the Main Menu appears across the top of
the screen. Most of the screen below is occupied by a rectangle termed the
PAGE. To the right of the PAGE the screen lists open geography, attribute,
datapoint and mapfile files and lists the number of selected geographic
features, attribute records and datapoint records. A large portion of the
rectangular PAGE is a smaller rectangle where maps are displayed. The PAGE
rectangle also has items such as legends, scales and titles. Individual page
elements can be turned off, moved or resized.
        The Main Menu has nine command choices. The FILE option leads to submenus
for using and merging files, writing subsets of features to other files and
creating geography, attribute or datapoint files. Submenus handle changing
the structure of attribute and datapoint files, compressing them (physically
removing deleted records), and importing or exporting them to or from dBASE
compatible databases, comma-delimited, tab-delimited, fixed length and
spreadsheet files.
        A FILE option runs scripts, small programs written by the user. The module
for producing them is not part of the regular Atlas GIS program. Most
systematists probably will not want to learn the script programming language
for the few instances where a script might be useful. The program supplies
seven scripts that can be run without having the script module. Perhaps the
most interesting is one that generates square grid-cell regions covering a
designated area with cells of a size specified by the user.
        The projection of a geography file can be changed to one of eight already
defined projections or to a user defined projection. (Projections are
representations of the three-dimensional globe onto two-dimensional paper or
computer screen, and each type of projection distorts some aspect of the
earth.) For most mapping needs the Robinson World Projection is the best
choice because many printed maps use this projection. Geographical analyses
using grids however require an equal area projection. Unfortunately, the
single included equal area projection, Albers Equal-Area Conic Projection,
produces objectionable distortion when used on areas larger than North
America. A better choice would have been the Lambert Azimuthal Equal Area
Projection that can show individual hemispheres without notable distortion.
        The VIEW choice of the Main menu allows changing the view of a map,
measuring distances and controlling a digitizing tablet. Options for
changing the view of a map are well designed, and users can easily zoom in
or out or pan to another portion of the map. Users can set the view to
include all selected features, undo the last change in view, save a view to
file (view is also part of mapfile) and reset the view to display all of the
map. Distances are easily measured by clicking on a given point and moving
the cursor to another. The screen shows the distance in the units (meters,
kilometers etc.) selected by the user during configuration of the geography
        The SELECT option of the Main menu provides powerful choices for selecting
geographic features. For each type of selection a popup box offers the
option of selecting from any layer or from just one of the layers whose
display is currently turned on. Map features can be selected by drawing a
circle, box or polygon around them. All features in a given layer may be
selected or the program can deselect currently selected features and select
those not currently selected. One choice selects all features in all layers
while another cancels all selections. The program can select map features
that have their centers inside features of a specified layer, that touch
features in a specified layer or that are within a specified distance of
features in a chosen layer. Map features may also be selected by specified
values in a corresponding attribute file. The results of selection
operations can be saved to file and recalled as wanted.
        The EDIT choice at the Main menu leads to submenus for creating and editing
geographical features and for viewing information about them. Most options
for creating or editing geographical features include a tools submenu that
offers a VIEW submenu for changing map views. New features may be added to
already existing layers or to a new one by drawing with a mouse or by
digitizing them from a paper map.
        Submenus offer many options for editing existing features. Choices include
adding, deleting or moving vertices, moving features to a new position or a
different layer, copying features to the same or different layers, resizing
or rotating features and splitting or combining them. Layers may be created,
deleted or renamed.
        The EDIT submenus also allow viewing and editing data about features.
Systematists will appreciate clicking on a datapoint and viewing in a popup
box the corresponding datapoint record. The values in the record fields may
be changed. Unfortunately, there is no command for simply printing the
datapoint fields, and the program prevents screen prints of the popup box.
        EDIT menu choices also allow editing of any open attribute and datapoint
files and provide options for filtering records to be edited. Menu choices
provide for replacing the contents of a field with specified data, the
calculated distance from a base point or with the results of a dBASE
compatible expression. The user may specify whether data are replaced for
only features already selected or for all features.
        The DISPLAY choice of the Main menu produces a series of submenus. One
choice presents a spreadsheet showing all the layers for the current
geographic file. This is one of the most frequently used menu choices
because it allows turning off and on the visibility of layers and altering
graphics settings. The size, color and type of symbol used for datapoints
are easily selected from popup lists. There are 128 different symbols, with
approximately 40 of them being suitable for scientific maps. It is difficult
to conceive of a situation in which the program might lack enough different
symbols for maps. Labels for features can be turned on and off, rotated and
moved. A submenu permits modifying settings for the PAGE, such as size of
the scale bar and turning legends on or off. These settings can be saved to
PAGE layout files, recalled as needed, or saved as part of a mapfile.
Freehand tools allow easy creation and editing of text, symbols, lines,
rectangles, circles and polygons.
        The CONFIGURE choice of the Main menu provides options for configuring
Atlas GIS. For example, printers can be selected or map distances may be
specified as miles, feet, kilometers or meters and areas as square miles,
square feet, square kilometers, square meters, hectares or acres. Many other
configuration choices can be made to customize the program.
        The THEMATIC option of the Main menu is a powerful tool for analyzing and
displaying distributions of different species or of character states within
species. Atlas GIS allows display of one or two variables on the same map.
To create a thematic map the user picks from a popup list the layer that
each variable is for and specifies the field or dBASE compatible expression
operating on a field to map. Thematic choices vary according to layer type.
Choices for a region layer are Ranged Fill (colored fill indicates data
value for each region), Proportional Fill (% of fill or shade for each
region proportional to its data value), Ranged Symbol ( symbol in center of
each region denotes data value), Proportional Symbol (variable sized symbols
represent data value) and Dot Density (density of symbols or dots
proportional to data value). Thematic choices for a line layer are Ranged
(line styles and colors show data range) and Proportional (line thickness
represents data value). Options for a point layer are Ranged (different
symbols and different styles and colors of symbols denote data value) and
Proportional (variable sized symbols show data value).
        A popup presents nine methods for ranging data. Four result in the program
creating the limits for each data range, Quantiles (ranges each contain same
percent of data values), Equal Size (ranges of same size, for example,
100-200, 200-300), Standard Deviation (ranges of one standard deviation in
size around mean) and Optimal (ranges that maximize Goodness of Vicariance
Fit using Fisher/Jenks iterative method). For the remaining five ranging
methods the user specifies the number of data ranges and limits for each,
Counts (user specifies number of data values in each range), Percentages
(user chooses % of data values contained in each range), Continuous (user
enters maximum data value for each range and minimum value for first range,
minimum value for other ranges is maximum value of previous range),
Discontinuous (user specifies maximum and minimum data value for each range)
and List of Values (user supplies list of exact data values for each range).
The program aids selecting a ranging method by presenting summary statistics
about the dispersion of the data including, number of data values within
range settings, number of data values outside the ranges and number of
features whose value is missing. Based on the type of layer the program
provides many choices for items such as type of symbol, color and style and
density of fill. Each data variable can have a legend for each range. The
style of legends can be specified, and the legend box can be sized and
placed anywhere on the map. The many choices of symbols and fills provide
probably more then 100 thematic possibilities. Thematic settings may be
saved to a file and recalled as needed.
        Five powerful analytical tools are under the Main menu choice of OPERATE.
OPERATE-UNION creates new features by combining features based on a common
attribute value. For example, suppose that a user has created an attribute
file with a field that records the type of plant formation found in
different areas in a geographical map. Regions with the same type of plant
formation can be grouped together so that statistics can be generated about
specimens collected in that type of plant formation.
        OPERATE-SPLIT takes one layer, overlays it with another, and creates new
features based on the intersection of the layers. Attribute data from both
original layers are copied or desegregated to the new records. For example,
a layer showing regions with elevations above 6,000 feet may be overlaid
with a layer showing regions of evergreen forest. The resulting new layer
will contain regions with elevations above 6,000 feet and with evergreen
forests. If the original layer of 6,000 feet regions had an attribute file
with a field for total number of specimens per region, the values in that
field change to reflect the totals for the new and presumably smaller
regions that are areas with elevations above 6,000 feet and with evergreen
        OPERATE-BUFFER creates user specified buffer zones or rings around
features. A systematist might find all collecting sites within a given
distance of streams or other water sources and have the program calculate
statistics about samples from these sites.
        OPERATE-INSIDE matches each feature in a given layer to the region in
another layer it's inside of or closest to, and retrieves the region's name
and other attribute information. The features in a chosen input layer are
overlaid by the features in a designated overlay layer. Data from the
overlay layer can then be assigned to the input features. An example is a
match of collecting sites from a datapoint file to a layer with locations of
freshwater springs. The program will identify collecting sites within a
specified distance from a spring. For each collecting site within the
designated distance, information about the spring can be retrieved.
        OPERATE-TOTAL aggregates data from one layer and assigns totals to another
layer. A systematist might use the INSIDE option to total data for all
specimens collected within a given plant zone or within regions of
particular elevation.
        The analysis commands grouped under OPERATE are both powerful and complex.
One complexity is that the user must sometimes enter dBASE compatible
expressions. An appendix to the reference manual briefly explains each dBASE
type function supported by Atlas GIS. Analysis could be simplified if the
program presented English language operators in a popup list related to
database fields. For example, to select records with the name binotatus in
the species field of an attribute file, one must type "binotatus" $ species
in the expression box. The English language operator for the above example
could be Contains text stating. Selection of this operator could then result
in the program prompting for the text and then building the expression.
        The PRINT choice on the Main menu leads to a submenu for printing the PAGE
(map plus elements such as legends and scale line) and for producing reports
from the Attribute and Datapoint files. Printing maps with considerable
detail is time consuming. For example, printing a map of North America
(showing coastlines, political boundaries and mountains above 1,829 meters)
from a 66-megahertz computer takes approximately seven minutes for rough
drafts at 150 dots/inch, approximately 35 minutes for 300 dots/inch and
approximately two hours for 600 dots/inch. The time required to print maps
with considerable detail seems unavoidable and is partly a function of the
large size of reasonably detailed geography files, and the speeds of the
printer, computer, CPU, memory, and hard disk. The program should have batch
printing of maps so that output could be generated overnight.
        Output choices in Atlas GIS make it difficult to send maps to files and
then use a graphics program to electronically combine files to produce
plates for publication. Users probably will have to print out individual
maps and manually paste them into plates.
        Part of the problem is lack of standardization for graphics files. Atlas
GIS can produce CGM files (Computer Graphics Metafiles). CGM is a loose
standard accepted by many computer graphics software vendors. CGM files
produced by one application often cannot be correctly imported into another.
This is the case with Atlas GIS CGM files. Incompatibility in CGM format
makes impractical the importation of CGM files into various graphics
programs such as Micrografx Designer (Micrografx, Inc., Richardson, Texas)
and HiJack Pro (Inset Systems, Brookfield, Connecticut). The incompatibility
with HiJack Pro is particularly troublesome because this latter program is
designed to convert graphics files from one type to another so that they may
be transferred between programs.
        The interface for designing reports is primitive and cumbersome compared to
interfaces provided in database programs such as FoxPro. It does not allow
using a mouse to move and resize fields nor allow putting fields below one
another on different lines. The latter limitation means that, for example,
if the printer output is 80 characters wide and the report has 10 fields
with a space between each field, each field can have a width of
approximately only seven characters. Some fields can however be designed to
have lesser widths to allow others to be wider. If the report writer cannot
fit a field into its defined space, the excess characters are put onto lines
below the field. The report module allows the filtering of the data reported
with dBASE compatible expressions and the calculating and reporting of
various statistics about data. Data may be sorted and grouped. Systematists
will probably find reports useful in data analysis but will dislike their
excessively narrow fields.
        Atlas GIS requires geography files for defining maps. The low resolution
maps supplied with the program lack elevation and other useful data and are
of limited use. Systematists will need to obtain suitable geography files.
        The Digital Chart of the World (DCW, available for $205.50 from U.S.
Geological Survey) is the original source for geographic data provided by
many commercial vendors. It is a comprehensive 1:1,000,000-scale vector
based map of the world with detailed cartographic, attribute and textual
data. Layers include drainage areas in line and point layers (lakes,
springs, drainage basins etc.), elevation contours in line layers, elevation
area zones, political boundaries, vegetation coverage (plant types in both
line and region layers) and coastlines. Many vegetation areas are based on
classifications not normally used by systematists, i.e., range land.
However, some areas, such as Evergreen Forest may be useful. A frustrating
feature of the DCW and of the Atlas version of it is that elevation data are
available only in feet.
        The 1,600 megabyte DCW is distributed on a set of four CD-ROM disks. Data
are arranged in a Vector Product Format not recognized by most GIS software
and have to be exported and converted into intermediate files that can be
imported into GIS software. Conversion requires obtaining a program for
extracting data from the CD-ROM disks and is difficult because the DCW
contains many data errors that interrupt conversion. Importation of the
intermediate files into Atlas GIS requires purchase of the separate
Import/Export module. Merging the various imported files is a lengthy process.
        The Atlas GIS version of the DCW comes on 4 CD-ROM disks, North America
(315 MG), South America, Africa and Antarctica (300 MG), southern Asia and
Australia (270 MG) and Europe and northern Asia (308 MG). The 183 layers of
data are similar to that of the federal DCW except that elevation data are
sold separately. The data on each CD-ROM are arranged into files covering 15
X 15 degrees, with typical files being approximately 15 megabytes.
Systematists who purchase the set must merge appropriate geography files and
then merge the results with appropriate elevation files. Probably
systematists will also want to use the Atlas GIS GENERALIZE command that
reduces the overall size and resolution of geography files.
        Atlas GIS requires a moderately powerful computer. My experience suggests
that minimal power for satisfactory speed is a 386 with approximately 6
megabytes of memory. Atlas GIS runs much faster on a 486 based computer with
extensive memory. Even on a 486 computer a few operations such as changing
map projections and compressing indexes are lengthy processes best done
        Large amounts of disk space are needed for geography files with adequate
detail. The files supplied by Strategic Mapping on CD-ROM cannot be used
while on CD-ROM because various program operations require creating new
geography file layers or modifying already existing ones. Files I had
extracted from the DCW for Canada and the United States discarded all but
one vertex (for each feature) for every 1/20 of a degree and still totaled
approximately 89 megabytes. I made a smaller 48.5 megabyte set of files by
copying to new files the layers for only coastlines, political boundaries,
mountains above 6,000 feet or 1,829 meters, mountains above 5,000 feet or
1,524 meters and a few small layers used for analyses. The resulting smaller
files lacked streams and vegetation and soil regions. Strategic Mapping
recommends that there be free disk space totaling three times a given set of
geography files when operations such as changing map projections and
compressing indexes are done. Indexes must be compressed after significant
changes are made in geography files, requiring approximately 270 megabytes
of free disk space for the original North America files or approximately 145
for the smaller files. If free space is inadequate, the geography files may
be damaged beyond repair. Backup hardware such as a tape drive should be
used so that different modifications to geography files can be saved.
        The program's many features and options mean that thoroughly learning it is
comparable to thoroughly learning a database or statistics program. A
tutorial manual and tutorial files greatly help the learning process.
Program manuals are exceptionally complete and well written with helpful
examples of using commands. Technical support is free, and technicians are
both knowledgeable and patient. However, this support is primarily obtained
on a call back basis, meaning waiting a day for an answer. An automated
service faxes the user answers to typically asked questions.
        There is a Windows version of Atlas GIS, and Strategic Mapping will offer
future enhancements only in Windows versions. The current Windows version
lacks the important capabilities of digitizing maps and creating reports.
Strategic Mapping as of November 1994 provides purchasers of the Windows
version a free copy of the DOS program if requested. Users can then digitize
maps in the DOS version and transfer into Windows. The Windows version
offers a slightly easier to use interface. A new Windows version will be
released in late 1994 or early 1995 and will have digitizing capabilities
and may be able to produce reports. Prospective purchasers should question
Strategic Mapping about features of the new Windows version and consider if
the new version better meets their needs.
        Some readers may wonder if purchasing a simpler program that just draws
maps is a good choice. However, a systematist can choose initially to learn
only the Atlas GIS features used in making maps. Later if the systematist
decides to analyze geographic data, the familiarity with making maps in
Atlas GIS will speed learning the analysis commands.
        In summary, Atlas GIS is a powerful program for making maps and analyzing
geographical data about organisms. It does formerly impractical or
impossible analyses. Its many features result in some commands being several
submenus deep within a given menu. However, if a systematist is interested
only in making maps (including thematic ones), the program can be operated
relatively simply. Program documentation and technical support are
excellent. Systematists with suitable computers should consider Atlas GIS to
improve their production of maps and analyses of geographical data.


        Anonymous. 1994. Systematics Agenda 2000. Technical Report. Produced by
Systematics Agenda 2000, 34 pp. Available from Department of Ornithology,
American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, New
York, New York 10024.
        Noonan, Gerald R. 1994. The RESEARCH INTERFACE. Users' Manual. Milwaukee
Public Museum. 70 pp. Program available free via FTP from,
directory pub\contributions\research.

Gerald R. Noonan, Zoology Section, Milwaukee Public Museum, 800 West Wells
St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53233. USA.

  * Gary Noonan, Curator of Insects, Milwaukee Public Museum  *
  * 800 W. Wells,  Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53233 USA             *
  * and Adjunct Associate Professor of Zoology, University of *
  * Wisconsin-Milwaukee carabid at                  *
  * voice (414) 278-2762  fax (414) 223-1396                  *

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