GIS is a technology with a powerful set of tools that many companies are using to get a better grasp on their data. New insights can lead to improved strategy and operational tactics, even in mature industries like retail, real estate, and utilities. Many businesses have either never realized the significance of how location data could help them. Others had some appreciation for the power of location analysis but used it ineffectively.
However, knowing of the existence of technology like GIS is not the same as the ability to implement it in a given corporation. Companies have to prepare themselves, and their employees, to make use of GIS if they want to gain the potential benefits.
Take real estate. The well-known mantra of “location, location, location” shows an understanding that location is important. But a real estate business is no more automatically qualified to immediately implement GIS than a middle-aged duffer is ready to play in the Masters Tournament. In both cases, the problem is a lack of preparation.
Many companies are aware that location has some importance to them but could be doing more to quantify their understanding of the issue and opportunities this presents. Retail chains need strong store locations. Utilities have to monitor electric poles. Marketers use ZIP code consumer profiling. But such uses of data fail to take advantage of GIS analysis. A more sophisticated approach enables GIS analysts to build the most effective product mix for a specific store, recognize changing patterns in electricity consumption in suburban neighborhoods, or pinpoint places to best advertise houses as vacation properties. To effectively implement GIS systems requires expertise in three areas:
Geospatial data models. Geospatial data is a type of metadata that identifies other information that relates to location. Using cartographic theory and practice, GIS experts use many ways to describe a location, involving different models of the earth and commonly defined datasets, or datums, which provide location tags. The GIS practitioner must choose the model and datum that will best lend itself to the company’s particular needs. For example, the Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system uses a decimal-based Cartesian coordinate system that makes many types of geographic calculations much easier than with latitude and longitude. Different datums describing global coordinates might give better results in particular areas or be necessary for compatibility with existing sets of data.
Systems to manage and display geospatial data. Traditional relational databases and newer types, like NoSQL forms increasingly used in big data applications, manage GIS data and enable specialized applications that allow you to apply location tags to data or analyze hundreds or even thousands of factors to obtain business insights. In addition, software that provides visualization capabilities, so people can see the relationships among different data and make them accessible for analysis.
Data management and business processes. Once a company has the necessary software, data structures, and theoretical models, it now needs the data itself. Much will come from internal systems, such as accounting, logistics, warehousing, marketing campaign management, manufacturing processes, or supply chain management systems.
But there are also important external sets of data, often from government sources or non-profit organizations that may provide important additional information that a company simply wouldn’t have on hand. Environmental information, economic statistics, or socioeconomic profiles by ZIP code would all be examples.
To succeed, a company must now learn to make GIS a part of its practices. In real estate, companies could make better use of auxiliary data to profile properties to identify the types of people or companies that might most likely be interested in a purchase or lease. Retail operations could examine socioeconomic patterns of areas and combine them with traffic flow analyses and other factors to pinpoint promising new locations or to develop a model of how existing stores should be performing. Utility companies can monitor growing communities and business areas to better predict the need for expansion and capital outlay.
Companies in these and other mature industries can learn that location is much more than a place on a map. It is a literal and figurative locus point for a confluence of factors that affect a business. By using GIS, companies can examine the confluence of influences and better understand how they interact and what the company can do to better operate.
Using GIS methods and insights lends itself to logistics and supply chain control, marketing activities, and maintenance and repair, to name just three areas. And yet, GIS is also a tool of strategic planning in such areas as contingency planning, capital spending, forecasting, and risk management.
GIS offers powerful capabilities to virtually any industry, but it requires significant commitment from upper management, financial and human resources, training, and patience to reap the potential rewards. To undertake a GIS program without being adequately prepared and ready is to waste money and employee and investor goodwill on something that, to the uninitiated, will ultimately seem to be a useless fad.
Stephen McElroy, GIS program chair at American Sentinel University, has held GIS positions at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and at a cultural resource management company as well as in academia and research institutions. He holds a Ph.D. in geography from San Diego State University and the University of California at Santa Barbara and a professional certification from the GIS Certification Institute.