BI learns geography for profit

Geographical information systems (GIS), long used in the public sector for specialized applications, such as population mapping and epidemiology, are now making a big splash in the private sector by providing a rich new business intelligence (BI) dimension. While many GIS companies offer their own BI tools and interfaces, recent demand for enriched geographic content and analytical tools with a BI front-end has spawned new alliances between GIS specialists and BI vendors. Text

That is not to say geographical information was not important to the private sector before. Retail chains, for example, have used GIS for site selection for some time, and most marketing efforts would be futile without demographic and location information. But, with the growing demand for BI throughout the enterprise, new applications are being found for old tools.

While many GIS companies offer their own BI tools and interfaces, recent demand for enriched geographic content and analytical tools with a BI front-end has spawned new alliances between GIS specialists and BI vendors.

George Moon, chief technology officer at MapInfo Corp. in Troy, N.Y., confirms that his company, like other GIS vendors, views BI vendors collectively as a new channel — one they predict will expand.

There is a notable intersection of interests right now. As BI vendors push their reporting capabilities, GIS vendors want to reach a wider audience, and customers are interested in novel ways of extracting information from data.

Most major BI vendors now offer integration with GIS in their products. The aim, according to Moon, is to offer customers a look and feel they’re accustomed to with their BI tools. When customers click on a map icon, for example, it pops up looking the same as the rest of the interface.

Adding drill-down and click-through capabilities to GIS maps creates familiarity for BI users. More traditional techniques, such as thematic shading, continue to provide important visual cues.

“It’s not that much of a paradigm shift for guys that have been using BI primarily as a reporting platform, says Steve Trammell, corporate alliance representative at ESRI. “It’s another graphic.” A mapping and GIS software vendor, ESRI is headquartered in Redlands, Calif.

GIS provides the means to display any kind of location data on maps. This is of great value to BI, as visuals are more attractive and informative than tabular data. It’s also easier to spot anomalies in a graphic than on a table.

ESRI’s Trammell reports a lot of recent interest in 3D maps that use the “third axis” to display data such as income or expenditure for a given area.

He also sees a growing interest in business modeling with geographic information, especially where models can be reused, and fine tuned, continuously.

There’s more to GIS than maps though. Even without a map, GIS data can be used to validate address or location information in a company’s databases. Essentially, the external GIS database can be used as a yardstick to evaluate the quality of internal data.

MapInfo’s Moon says BI is good at handling a company’s internal live data and its historical data, while GIS also brings in external data to support the process. GIS data can be used to supplement and extend internal data by, for example, adding missing address information.

Data segmentation is essential to BI, and GIS can provide valuable insights by segmenting data by location. It allows for techniques such as segmentation by arbitrary boundaries like trade areas, or driving distance.

Monica Schnitger, a senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Daratech, Inc., sees the combination of BI and GIS as a growing trend in the private sector. While it is still very new to this sector, the value of this data is being more widely recognized each day.

What’s surprising to ESRI’s Trammell is that the public sector – previously the mainstay of traditional GIS – is also now leading the adoption of BI/GIS. More than 50 per cent of BI implementations with major GIS components have been in the public sector. He speculates that the private sector has been more conservative in its uptake of this technology because of its greater accountability for ROI, especially in the shorter term.

New technologies, such as RFID (radio frequency identification), which uses passive transponders to track the location of goods or people, is of major interest to the public sector, especially to military services, where it is being used in logistics. However some transportation companies are now adopting this technology to determine the best routes for their trucks.

But, as Daratech’s Schnitger points out, RFID may face non-technical roadblocks, such as privacy concerns.

She cites the protest that erupted when Boston snowplows were required to carry RFID devices so their locations could be tracked. The same may happen with investigations into fraud and abuse of social benefits.

Nevertheless, industry insiders say stories such as these in the popular media have created greater awareness of the usefulness of geographical representations of data. Maps and graphics shown on national television during natural disasters also increase the sophistication of consumers.

Schnitger points to Google Earth as a potential force for BI/GIS change. Its popularity, based on its simple user interface and wide availability, may lead to demand for similar services from municipal government to provide interactive maps of property tax rolls, for example.

“So the need to make this information more accessible to more people is driving a lot of change from a user interface point of view,” she explains, “which will also lead to changes in the underlying technology.”

ESRI’s Trammell agrees that the last year and a half has been about learning for BI vendors, GIS companies and their customers. Now GIS information is becoming part of the fabric of BI. It’s an expected part of BI packages.

Although adoption of BI/GIS will increase steadily in the private sector, dramatic growth will continue in the public sector.

According to Schnitger and other industry experts, innovative new applications are most likely to appear in fraud detection, logistics, security, health administration and disaster recover planning.

Applications for geographical information will continue to grow as companies find new ways of tying data together to make better decisions.

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