EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Newly formed Vista Information Solutions Inc. is based on the philosophy that knowledge is power.

With its merger with DataMap Inc. here, Vista doubled the power it provides bankers.

San Diego-based Vista Environmental Inc., founded in 1990, had been helping banks identify environmentally tainted properties. The privately held company was purchased Tuesday by publicly traded DataMap, which changed its own name to Vista Information Solutions.

The stock deal created a diversified product line that includes sophisticated mapping software to ease compliance with community reinvestment and fair-lending laws.

The new Vista serves 1,000 banks.

"We plan to leverage the strengths of the two companies," said Don Coley, vice president of marketing. "We have more tools for the bank to use than a single-source vendor."

The companies decided to merge after working together on a product for the insurance industry, Mr. Coley said. Because both were in the business of managing risk with geography-based products, the companies realized they complemented each other.

Combining will broaden the geographic reach of the old Vista's environmental data base, which banks could access through software provided by the company. Both companies were prospering: revenues for DataMap increased 37% last year to $943,000; Vista's revenues were up 13% to $7 million.

Vista's first new product, expected out this fall, will be a revision of Community Reinvestment Act compliance software. The timing is right, as bankers are trying to adjust to new CRA rules adopted in April.

While banks have been using DataMap's maps for branching and marketing strategies since 1975, the demand for mapping is shifting to CRA lending.

The latest edition of Census Traks Plus has a triple focus: compliance with the CRA and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act as well as marketing.

Right now, the product has 300 financial services customers of all sizes. Banks make up half that list, thrifts 20%, credit unions 15%, and mortgage bankers 15%.

Users can prepare demographic reports by census tract, ZIP code, or block group. The bank can use that information to check how many accounts or customers it has in a certain area and spot lending problems.

Bankers also can build reports for any combination of 174 demographic variables, such as income, race, education, or employment. With that information, banks can use Census Traks Plus to monitor their lending for discrimination and decide which parts of a community they need to reach.

The program helps banks comply with the mortgage disclosure act by geocoding addresses and assigning them the correct census tract number. It can even check the bank's data for errors, such as repeated or incomplete entries. "The worst thing you can do on a HMDA report is give misinformation," Mr. Coley said.

In addition, banks can create a loan application register on the software.

Rhonda Hammond, compliance specialist at MidAmerica Bank, Minneapolis, has been using Census Traks Plus to code mortgage disclosure act loans for about a year. Before buying the product, Ms. Hammond's bank came under examiner fire for too many disclosure act errors. That was because MidAmerica manually entered the information, she said.

Since using the software to code the loans, the bank has received positive feedback from regulators.

"Our report this year was good," Ms. Hammond said, adding that the product saves a lot of time, too.

Census Traks Plus, which comes on CD-ROM or diskette, is available by state, region, or the whole country. The price for one state is $2,295.

Banks don't need to buy the software to get the maps, however. Vista can create a map of a bank's lending area, and then produce clear overlays that show where loans are going or what the income levels are in those areas.

"Some banks like props" they can show examiners, said Mr. Coley.

In fact, CRA maps are the company's largest revenue producer. Banks can expect about a two-week turnaround time for a map order, Mr. Coley said.

As with CRA, the rules in Vista's other focus area - environmental lender liability - are in flux.

The regulation banks had used as a road map to determine environmental risk was overturned last year. The Superfund bill working its way through Congress would spell out when banks are responsible for cleaning up contaminated land.

While they are waiting for a legislative fix, banks can use Vista to find out if land is polluted before making a loan.

For $15, banks can get an environmental snapshot: a listing of environmental problems at and near a site. For $25, banks can get a list of specific addresses where those problems exist. These services are available online by using software Vista provides free.

"This low-cost screening allows banks to know the implications before they make the loan," Mr. Coley said. Some bankers check out land they are suspicious about, others screen every potential loan, he said.

Vista's reach into the banking industry is extended through its partnership with compliance giant Bankers Systems Inc. The St. Cloud, Minn., company resells Census Traks Plus with the more familiar Bankers Systems name on it.

Vista also is linked with Strategic Mapping, Santa Clara, Calif., which provides geographic technology to enhance its mapping product.

In addition to selling to banks, Vista makes maps for other industries, including health care and transportation. It even has created a map of the Mall of America in Minneapolis, which shows how far customers travel to shop there.

Buying DataMap added two other software products to Vista, one aimed at insurance companies, and the other to direct mail marketers.

What Vista doesn't do, said Mr. Coley, is give banks advice. Providing every fact a banker could want about his customers is Vista's selling point.

"Forward-looking bankers want to know as much as they can about their customers," Mr. Coley said.

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