The field of geographic information systems (GIS) is impacting the enterprise applications space like never before. Known best for basic mapping functions, its influence is apparent to any smartphone user who has opened a maps program to locate the nearest Starbucks or find a gas station.
But that’s GIS at its most basic level. In the enterprise it can be used with business applications such as CRM, business intelligence (BI) and Big Data analytics.
Here are seven things you need to know about GIS in the enterprise:
At its core, GIS is a visual database that is transactionally updated. It makes use of data creation workflows that harness the underlying database, using it to produce different views depending on what users want. The immediate allure is that you can use it to map anything and to combine anything mapped with further data to see the patterns you want.
"GIS is compelling as maps communicate," said Jack Dangermond, president of ESRI. "They can tell you stories such as where the money is being spent, patterns emerging from natural disasters and possible causes of disease."
GIS Extending its Reach
Forty-five years ago, maps were physical items that tested the paper-folding capabilities of many users. Computerization has gradually extended their reach into the enterprise. Early GIS was loaded on an old IBM 360 mainframe. Over time, it gradually moved over to minicomputers, client/server and more recently onto the cloud.
"At each step, GIS usage has expanded, never more so than its recent move into the cloud," said Dangermond. "These days, it is being used to enhance communication and make better decisions."
Petrochemical and telecommunication giants have embraced GIS as a means of demonstrating phone coverage areas, tracking oil spills and detecting oil and gas resources. Verizon Shell, General Motors, Walmart, Starbucks and Nike use it to view their businesses spatially.
One good example is the Uber taxi service. Instead of being told that a yellow cab will be there in 15 minutes and then waiting endlessly for one to appear, this company offers customers a mobile app to set up a pickup location on a phone. The app allows them to see a photo of the driver, track where the vehicle is and, at the end of the ride, rate the driver's performance. With a credit card already on file, the transaction itself is seamless.
"Uber is transforming an entire industry with spatial technology," said Steve Ressler, CEO of the GovLoop knowledge network for public sector workers.
Government is grabbing GIS with both hands. Federal, state and local agencies are not just mapping things; some have integrated all government and business systems with it. For example, the city of Geneva in Switzerland and the state of Abu Dhabi have all government agencies wrapped around a geo-spatial system that enables them to visualize anything and correlate patterns using a large number of parameters.
"Government is using GIS with analytics to solve real problems like how to position police officers on the 4th of July or to combine a food safety database with code and permit data to know where to deploy personnel," said Ressler. "Layering the information spatially makes it more interesting, as you can get the data out and moving fast."
GIS helps change how we think and behave. People see things differently, and this enables them to approach problem-solving in new ways. In tandem with Big Data and remote sensor networks, what is emerging is a services-based GIS model providing applications for a multitude of devices. You end up with maps combined with analytics, mashups, social media, marketing and sales data.
"GIS used to be a complex ‘over there’ system," said Ressler. "Now it’s an 'everywhere' system and easy to use."
App Development Platform
With GIS moving into the cloud, developers are coding it as an underlying program rather than one that sits on top of the infrastructure layer. As a result, developers of enterprise applications based on SAP, Microsoft Office, SharePoint, MicroStrategy, IBM Cognos and Microsoft Dynamics CRM are using it to create a multitude of mobile applications.
Case in point: Bruce Wong, manager, Advanced Network Analytics at GM, is a big fan of GIS. His company uses it in conjunction with analytics for things like modeling performance in a spatial environment between dealerships.
This system allows GM to view local demographics, location characteristics, regional differences and even the competitive brand environment to determine how a given dealership should be performing compared to actual results. This makes it easier for the company to isolate demand, target its marketing efforts to local preferences and position its dealerships to improve success. Despite cutting market spending, GM has increased sales.
"Location analytics helps us to obtain more with less," said Wong. "We use ESRI’s ArcGIS software to map everything. This includes a choice and convenience map for every dealership. We can bring all the data in so we can geographically use it to make better decisions, understand customers and provide better service."
GM spends a staggering $2 billion a year on marketing. In the past, it "shotgunned" its ads at the general public. Now, it maps out which types of households will buy new cars, can more accurately determine locations where people buy certain models and channel its ads specifically to those areas.
"We can chase households that actually buy new cars, instead of wasting money on households that hold on to used models or only buy used," said Wong. "That allows us to spend less money to generate higher sales."
Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in California, he is originally from Scotland, where he received a degree in geology and geography from the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).