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3-GIS President Thomas Counts uses his mapping software on a cell phone at his company in Decatur. The mapping software runs on anything that runs a Windows based operating system.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
3-GIS President Thomas Counts uses his mapping software on a cell phone at his company in Decatur. The mapping software runs on anything that runs a Windows based operating system.

power of place’

3-GIS proving Decatur works for high-tech

By Eric Fleischauer · 340-2435

It’s a high-tech company on the cutting edge, developing advanced mapping software for everyone from the Homeland Security Department to power companies. It pays top dollar for its well-schooled employees.

Where is it?

Not Huntsville or San Francisco or even Madison. It’s in Decatur, where it was founded.

3-GIS, in a river-view suite on Market Street Northeast, is not the typical homegrown business. Civic leaders hope it is a sign for a city that has struggled for success while its neighbors enjoy a white-collar triumph.

Starched white collars are no prettier than blue, but they bring a lot more cash. That generates more retail options, more tax money, improved housing and higher- paying service jobs.

The president of 3-GIS — named for its main products, third generation geographical information systems — is a Decatur native.

“It’s all about understanding the power of place,” said Thomas Counts. He’s referring to his software application, but he has discovered the power of place in his choice of business location, too.

Started in May 2006

The company started in May 2006 with four employees. It has 19 now, most of them software developers and programmers. Its owners include Counts, Tommy Siniard, Jerry Golden and David Hart.

Decatur’s median per capita income is $23,505. 3-GIS pays more than twice that for its new hires, immediately out of college.

“We’re in a very technically competitive market in North Alabama,” Counts said. “Just look at what’s happening in Madison and Huntsville. It’s expensive, and we have to be able to recruit the best.”

Counts and the other owners worked together at Intergraph before starting Mesa Solutions in Madison. Telcordia Technologies bought the company in 1999, and the four left the company when they formed 3-GIS.

Typical customer

A typical 3-GIS customer is a power company. While some businesses have all their assets in a single location, such as a warehouse, a power company’s assets are spread throughout its coverage area. It must track thousands of utility poles, hundreds of miles of lines, transformers and substations.

“All their assets are out in the field,” said Counts, “and the best way to manage that is on a map.”

Several businesses offer solutions, but those solutions invariably offer one-way communication from the front office to workers.

A lineman can use these solutions to find a transformer, but not to communicate new information about the transformer back to the front office.

This causes problems. Take a mundane example: A lineman encounters a vicious dog chained near the transformer.

3-GIS products give the lineman the ability to post — in real time — an alert about the dog. That alert pops up on the server at the front office, and on the computerized map of every person working in the field.

The lineman posts the alert on the screen of a GPS-equipped cell phone. The cell phone runs 3-GIS software called Field Express Chameleon.

Chameleon looks a bit like Mapquest, but each location marked on the map includes data. The transformer example might have data about the type of transformer, when it was last repaired and, of course, a warning about the dog. If the lineman replaces the transformer with a different type, the new type immediately posts to the map.

The map also shows the location of all other linemen. If it turns out to be a two-person job, the first lineman knows the closest colleague to contact for help.

“In the past, they would generate a paper map and give it to the repairman. He would go out in the field, do the repair, and redline the map — literally using a crayon on the paper — to identify the changes he made,” Counts said. “Then he rolls up the paper map and waits until he gets back to the office to hand it to a drafter.”

That’s if the system works.

“What really happens is they spill coffee on the paper, they throw it in the back seat of the car and then they forget about it,” Counts said. “That means the quality of your map data and your asset data start degrading.”

3-GIS is all about reversing that process. Real-time interconnectivity between the field worker and the front office means mapping data gets better, not worse, over time.

Utilities are catching on to the benefits of 3-GIS technology quickly, but the most significant application may turn out to be one that 3-GIS founders did not initially contemplate.

Crisis management

In the months following Aug. 29, 2005, thousands of responders descended upon the New Orleans area to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. It was a logistical nightmare.

Workers developed crude codes to paint on the doors of damaged houses to alert other workers what was inside. Electricity outages meant many gas stations were out of service, so responders wasted valuable time trying to find refueling spots.

Some hospitals were full, others were closed.

Shelters popped up by the hour, some filling immediately and some with vacancies. People who lost their homes did not know where to go, and responders did not know where to send them.

A 3-GIS system could help reduce the chaos in the next Katrina. Responders could use Chameleon-equipped cell phones to access and post real-time information and maps on operable gas stations, shelter vacancies and stranded residents.

Cell phone service can go down in such emergencies, but the lesson of Katrina, said Counts, is that it comes back quickly. Moreover, Chameleon is designed to store information if there is no service at the time of posting, automatically transmitting it when service resumes.

ESi, a large company specializing in crisis information management, saw the benefits of Chameleon and pitched it to Homeland Security. Last month, 3-GIS licensed its software to ESi for Homeland Security’s use.

“After Hurricane Katrina there were data latencies of weeks, delays in getting information back to the emergency operations center,” Counts said.

That meant the center could not develop a reliable “common operational picture.” People in the field were the tentacles gathering information, but they were feeding the information to the center with everything from phone calls to Post-It notes to e-mails.

“It was a slow aggregation of information,” Counts said. “The technology we’re bringing to market now solves a lot of those problems.”

The cell phone interface is appropriate for emergency situations because responders already know how to use them.

“The sexy part is the handheld,” Counts said. “The magic foo-foo dust is what’s happening at the server. That’s what does the heavy lifting.”

Creating that foo-foo dust requires skilled programmers. 3-GIS offers plenty of money to lure them, but they can get similar compensation elsewhere.

Decatur’s quality of life

What they cannot get elsewhere, Counts insists, is the quality of life available here.

“I love Decatur. I was born and raised here,” Counts said. “It’s a city that I think has great potential as far as the cost of living and the quality of life.”

He is consciously using Decatur’s benefits in his recruitment efforts.

“Our offices are located right on the river with a beautiful view. We recruit a lot from the Huntsville area. When they see the environment, the recruiting takes care of itself,” Counts said. “Decatur is a good location.”

It has its downsides, though. A lack of high-end executive apartments and gated communities have been a problem for his employees, half of whom live outside Decatur.

“It sounds snobby, and I don’t mean it that way,” Counts said. “It’s just who I’m having to recruit and where they tell me they want to live.”

One of the benefits to Decatur of a business like 3-GIS is that it represents new money. Counts is not stealing business or employees from local competitors, because there are no local competitors.

“Most of our customers are not here. In my last business I had customers in 21 countries. I expect something similar with 3-GIS,” Counts said. “We’ll be a multinational corporation.”

A year after starting up, 3-GIS customers include Georgia Power, Alabama Power, Level 3 and numerous Canadian companies.

High-tech example

Mayor Don Kyle said another benefit of 3-GIS is that its success proves Decatur works as a home for high-tech business.

“A small business like that, already located in Decatur and founded in the city, is the kind of thing you can point to in your recruiting efforts to show that, yes, we can house that type company,” Kyle said.

Counts loves Decatur, but his passion is 3-GIS and its products. The Chameleon application is major, but he expects more.

“This is far from the end-game of 3-GIS,” said Counts. “This is just our first foray into thin-client solutions. It’s gaining a life of its own.”

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