There’s a lot going on in the GIS space but for those of you who don’t follow it, here’s a quick refresher. GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems; this technology is also often known as “geospatial”. GIS’ analytical tools enable uses to associate data and geographic attributes to make decisions: how should a school system respond to demographic changes within a town? Where can we put a cell tower for maximum coverage? How is cholera spread in Haiti? Where are potential trouble spots in military zones?

GIS used to be very esoteric, but almost everyone now uses it in some form today. If your smartphone can tell you where the closest Starbucka is, that’s GIS. Directions using Google Maps or Mapquest? GIS. An online service that shows house prices on a map of your town? GIS.

The GIS space is rapidly evolving as traditional analytics vendors like Intergraph and ESRI embrace new ways of viewing data and as data vendors move into analytics. Yesterday NAVTEQ, one of the main providers of maps, traffic and location data for GPS navigation systems and location-based services, acquired PixelActive, which provides 3D urban modeling software for video games, simulation, navigation, and urban planning.

The acquisition is part of NAVTEQ’s strategy to expand from a flat 2D map to what is being called “3D maps”. Most people think of a 3D map as the Google Earth-type flyover you may see if you watch television news; that’s a nice image that may be visually correct but it may not be a true 3D map. In the emerging context, a 3D map is more than pretty graphics. If you select a building, the GIS underlying the 3D map can tell you that it’s an abandoned warehouse that once contained hazardous materials or that it’s an office tower with a certain type of sprinkler system — information critical for firefighters.

The PixelActive acquisition is interesting because it further blends a CAD-like view of map data with game-like graphics. This 3D map concept has been in place for a while from CAD companies that also provide GIS, such as Autodesk and Bentley Systems; their solutions come at this from the civil engineering side. The CAD vendor solutions enable transportation infrastructure engineers, land developers, utility designers, and others to aggregate survey data, satellite images, laser scanning (LIDAR) and other forms of data with design information about the bridge, road or power plant data. The PixelActive deal will likely ratchet up the expectations of all involved in 3D maps.

“Future developments in navigation and other location-enabled solutions will rely heavily on 3D mapping capabilities,” said Cliff Fox, executive vice president, NAVTEQ Maps.  Larry Kaplan, president and CEO, NAVTEQ added,  “We are quickly moving to a world of 3D maps and NAVTEQ is taking the necessary steps to continue to provide our customers with a superior offering from which they can differentiate their products.”

Terms of the acquisition are not disclosed.