Thursday, July 16, 2009

Location Intelligence


We are in the midst of a geospatial revolution. Geo what I hear you saying? Is this geography; maybe maps? Both and more. Specifically we are talking about location. Location in space; how it is visualized and analyzed. In this article we will introduce the new landscape that is geospatial. We will see how we got to today, define terms, compare platforms and segments. Ultimately, we will help you better understand location and its importance to your business.

Let's start at the Beginning

So what is location? At its most basic we are talking about a point in space; you, me, a house, a store, a sale, maybe a delivery. All entities and events have a location. Every business operates in this space.

So we are talking maps then. Yes and no. Maps are simply a way to visualize space. They have context. So driving maps, show roads and settlements. On thematic maps voting patterns across the US may be represented. Changes in city boundaries over time can be shown on temporal maps. More accurately, we are talking about elements or activities which exist or take place respectively in space. A map is merely the representation of these elements or activities, together or in isolation, in space. Maps are images. Humans are wired to best understand information when it is presented in images. Thus maps are a wonderful way to present complex information in understandable ways.

What is Geospatial

Geo is a prefix for any word dealing in some way with the earth. Spatial is from the word space or the boundless, three-dimensional extent in which objects and events occur with relative position and direction. Geospatial is the visualization and analysis of terrestrial geographic datasets. If “geo” is so important to understanding physical assets and the location of people - two critical components to the commerce of goods and services, and therefore business decisions - why has location been an untapped dimension of business? Why has GIS been in the closet for 25 years? And, so why suddenly has its profile been raised? A brief history might be in order.

Proprietary Software v. Spatial Thinking
Geospatial has been dominated by geographic information systems (GIS) for 25 years. GIS was a specialized niche. Desktop applications like ESRI’s ARC/INFO and ArcView allowed users to display points, lines and polygons stored in spatially enabled databases as maps, and to perform spatial analysis on this data. Thus if a store wished to build a new branch it could use a GIS to analyze proposed areas in terms of maybe demographics; we want a high percentage of families with a certain household income within a 5 mile radius of our new store.

The Role of Money
In 1996 Mapquest became the first mapping Internet site, enabling users to turn to the Web for driving directions. ESRI released its IMS product line; MapObjects IMS and ArcView IMS, in 1997. Giving developers tools to build online GIS applications. Though these were key developments it was not until 2005 with the launch of Google Maps that the geospatial revolution truly began. So why was Googles entry into geospatial so impactful? For a number of reasons. First was the amount of money put behind the launch. Take hardware for example, it is thought Google now stores many thousands of terrabytes of spatial data. At the time theis level of spending was unprecedented. Second, they introduced the idea of slippy maps. No longer did users need to wait for a map to load. Maps were tiled and provided a seamless experience. Third they took advantage of AJAX and rich Internet applications (RIA). Google maps was more like a desktop experience. Fourth, they made their API public. Thus it became easy for anybody to add a map to their personal Web site. Lastly, they pulled together and provided in one place a range of different spatial data - roads, satellite, birds eye panoramas - all for free.

Microsoft and Yahoo soon followed Google into the geospatial market. Microsoft have become known for their work with 3-D, birds eye and oblique views. And, like Google, they have put considerable resources behind their geospatial offerings.

The Current Landscape

The last few years have seen dramatic changes in the geospatial landscape. What exactly do we mean by this landscape? Historically, geospatial applications were confined to the desktop and limited to trained GIS programmers and analyst. The geospatial industry has become more than just GIS. It is now part of the Web and mobile experience. Maps are everywhere. There has been a proliferation of business tools enabling the inclusion and analysis of location. Thus we are talking about changes in both the breadth and depth of geospatial. For the technical, a background in geography is no longer a prerequisite. The business professional now has a wealth of new additional tools available to help better understand customers, and organize their business.

Growth within the industry continues at an astonishing rate. Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Mapquest continue to extend the services they are offering. ESRI, historically dominating the GIS market, have extended their range of products. Many small companies also have entered the geospatial market with more specialized niche products and services.

For both the technical and less technical it is worth exploring how this landscape is changing. The different areas which have emerged, and some of the tools now available.

The Web Dynamic
As mentioned, maps have increasingly become part of the Web experience. A range of so called consumer mapping and map mash ups have emerged. Markers have been added to maps, displaying points of interest (POI’s). Maps have also become more than just points and lines; georeferenced multimedia has been added to the mix. Flickr, for example, have made sharing georeferenced photos popular. Currently around one hundred thousand photos are uploaded to Flickr each day. This has been aided by the fact that many mobile phones now have built in cameras. Consumers, businesses and government agencies have been making use of these services.

Figure 1: The FlakeFinder Web site and example of a ski resort mash up

Desktop or browser plugs-ins like Google Earth and MSN’s Virtual Earth are now popular. These have enabled 3-D maps, views from oblique angles, street level views, flight simulators and non terrestrial views.

GeoSocial Networking
Social networking has recently become very popular; services like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. The proliferation of mobile devices with built in GPS, has added a new platform for this form of networking. The goal of geosocial networking is to discover places, things, people and events nearby. Thus, for example, when shopping in a mall, your mobile can notify you of others in your network nearby. It can also let you know about sales or special events in real time. Geospatial companies are very active in this space. Examples include Platial which is focused on ‘who and what are nearby’ on the Web. Buzzd and Pelago use Web services like Facebook Connect to share personal networks using mobile devices.

Route and network analysis has seen dramatic recent growth. Vehicles increasingly have built in route guide systems like Tom-Tom. These systems can audibly guide you to your destination. They are often networked, thus can provide real time information on congestion, road works and other key network data. On the Web Mapquest have added local information to the existing route and network services they offer.

With the popularity of mobile devices, a wide range of geospatial applications have been produced. The IPhone is very notable, with a range of Google map based applications now available. Other mobile providers are following suite, most notably Nokia with its OVI launch.

The geospatial community is highly active. There many open source tools available. Open source geospatial servers include MapServer and Geoserver. OpenLayers and Modest maps are excellent libraries for building mapping interfaces, while PostGIS extends the Postgres database to be able to handle spatial data.

Rich Internet mapping applications (RIA’s) are an important part of the new geospatial experience. With the adoption of technologies like AJAX and Adobe Flex, increasingly Web applications resemble those running on the desktop. Sophisticated interfaces, which avoid full screen refreshes, are ever more common. Providing users a rich Web geospatial experience.

There has been a proliferation of spatial data sources. Citizens have increasingly become important as providers of this data. During Hurricane Katrina, key location information was provided and mapped by citizens. OpenStreetMap is a highly accurate free base map, built by volunteers. The proliferation of video cameras and sensors, tracking things like local weather conditions, are providing much new data to geospatial systems.

Figure 2: OpenStreetMap data displayed using OpenLayers

Business Intelligence

So how should business professionals be thinking about “geo”? We have discussed the new tools and data now available, but not how these are being directly utilized by businesses.

From the recent ESRI Business conference GIS summit a number of key business GIS areas were defined:
a) Asset Management
- Oil and Gas - monitoring and managing pipelines
b) Planning & Analysis
- Retail - market analysis and optimizing store distribution; eliminate poor performers and adding new locations.
- Insurance – evaluating risk and determining accurate pricings for the specific location.
- Emergency Services - damage assessment (eg. flooding)
- Land - land developers assessing parcel/land value
c) Field Mobility
- Trucking and delivery - optimum routes and delivery vehicle management.
d) Operational Awareness - asset utilization and supply chain efficiency.

Mash ups
There are a wide range of examples in this category. These include:
- State promotion - geolocated photos, video and images used to promote a state.
- Retail advertising - adding store locations to maps using markers.
- Real estate – homes for sale eg.
- Travel/tourism - destination guide and planning tools eg.
- Emergency services - geolocated data and photos eg. hurricane Katrina
- Business intelligence - news by location http://www.metacarta .com
- Financial sector - location based news and data.
- Insurance - weather forecasting eg.
- Entertainment - book or band tours eg.
- Emergency planning - toxic spills
- Health and medicine - tracking the spread of disease eg.

Figure 3 – Mapping the diffusion of swine flu

- Travel industry planning – flight data eg.

This includes stand-alone maps or geodata downloaded from the Web
- Travel/Tourism and Federal State Agencies - local transportation information
- Trucking - fleet management
- Planning - parking information; availability by pricing zones
- Travel/Tourism - guided walks, creating routes eg.
- Travel - directions, traffic congestion eg.
- Retail - shopping alerts eg.
- Emergency services - evacuation and disaster management
- Retail – guiding drivers to low cost gasoline stations eg.

Web based driving and route mapping services.
- Delivery - shortest path eg. http:/
- Sales – planning client visits

Geosocial Networking
- Retail advertising - are friends in my network nearby?
- Non profit - sharing ideas/creating community by locations
- Hazards and Disaster Planning – sharing information by location eg.
- Promotion - geotagged imagery or video eg.

Figure 4 – Geotagged photos mapped in flickr


- Promotion/announcement – location driven announcements using geocoded addresses
- Publishing – interactive flash maps to support articles eg.,,1807749,00.html
- Local advertising – finding user locations from computer IP eg.


Much of the current business focus is on the why and when of customer behavior; the where remains under explored. Location intelligence is the analysis of the space in which a business operates. It takes in sales, marketing, the supply chain, operations. Maps are the presentation of this spatial data, maybe in combination with spreadsheets and charts. They serve to help both with pattern recognition and as spatial indexes; displaying related data.The recent changes in the geospatial industry has provided additional tools, and data to businesses. Allowing where to be included as a part of business intelligence. In this article, we have focused on the changing geospatial landscape. We have attempted to demystify a rapidly growing industry. And, hopefully demonstrate the importance of location intelligence in the success of any business.

1 comment:

D said...

The future of business intelligence is really in getting the right information when and where it is needed. The mobility factor is definitely going to take off to greater heights.