Knowledge of the location of customers, property, products or any other asset is invaluable intelligence for improving competitive advantage and operational efficiency. However, despite the proliferation of data that businesses generate today, the potential value of this location dimension is often overlooked in the business intelligence process.
With enterprises having access to ever greater volumes of historic data, to get maximum value from it they need to make use of the location element in order to drive deeper business insights to improve competitiveness and business performance.
Putting Business Intelligence on the Map
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have long offered the capability to analyse geospatial data. Geospatial data refers to information that can be geographically referenced in either 2 or 3 dimensions, that is, any data that can be mapped such as geographic features, business points, households, demographics and consumption patterns. GIS software has been supplied by companies such as ESRI and MapInfo for many years, with ESRI’s first commercial GIS software designed to run on minicomputers, ArcInfo, dating back to 1982.
Using a GIS, geospatial data can be created, placed on a digital map and visualised, compared and analysed. This is the essence of geospatial analysis. Traditionally, Geographic Information Systems are based on proprietary technology and are geography centric – the value is in the geographic data. The utility industry, for example, has long been using GIS to maintain location information on their electricity, gas and water networks. Traditional GIS is also expert-user oriented and is typically deployed departmentally as either a stand-alone or networked desktop application. Today, enterprise geospatial applications have evolved from these specialist GIS tools, and are designed to analyse and model business decisions using geospatial information. Like Business Intelligence (BI), enterprise geospatial systems are business process driven, integrating with ERP, CRM and other enterprise applications.
As much as 80% of an organisation’s data can be associated with a geographic location; this can include customer or competitor locations, store locations and sales territories. When viewing this data on a map, as opposed to a spreadsheet, trends become easier to spot. The key to the power of geospatial-enabled applications is with the data. For example, by adding demographic information to an organisation’s existing business data, maps become truly interactive through the capability for users to drill down to data associated with any given location. What is the average income in areas where the highest performing stores are located? How do sales vary by population level or by proximity to competitors? Such information is extremely valuable when, for example, planning new store locations. The benefits of geospatial analysis are now being realised across a range of industries including manufacturing, retail, public planning, financial services and telecoms network planning.
The power of geospatial analysis has not been ignored by business intelligence vendors. Oracle Locator, for example, is part of Oracles Database 10g and offers the functionality to manage spatial data. Oracle Spatial provides capabilities for geocoding, routing, data mining and spatial analysis. IBM also offers spatial capabilities with DB2, through the Spatial Extender, based on ESRI technology. Pure play BI vendors such as Business Objects, Hyperion, Information Builders and SAS Institute have collaborated with ESRI to integrate geospatial capabilities into their platforms. Similarly, both Cognos and Microstrategy offer integration with MapInfo geospatial technology.
So with many BI vendors offering integration with geospatial technology, how close are we to the location enabled enterprise? MapInfo in particular aims to widen the adoption of it’s so called “location intelligence” applications to mainstream business users. Although its strongest sectors are retail and the public sector, it is seeing the fastest growth in the financial services and insurance markets, organisations which have not been traditional users of GIS.
The potential for business users to benefit from geospatial data without having to be GIS specialists is significant. However, whilst Business Intelligence (BI) is generally considered now to be more valued at the strategic level, geospatial business applications are largely still a tactical investment. The key challenge for MapInfo and similar vendors is to demonstrate to the C level executives the value of geospatial technology and how it can ultimately deliver a competitive edge to their organisation, by enabling all levels within an organisation to benefit from geospatial data.
In terms of technology, the future development of geospatial applications will be primarily driven by service-oriented architectures (SOA). For example, inventory control using RFID represents a real opportunity to integrate real time data with geospatial technology. Similarly, the ability to view geospatial data on mobile devices will further boost the trend for requiring real time data. It is likely that geospatial capabilities will be more easily and cost-effectively integrated within enterprise systems that are based on SOA. By linking geospatial applications to online databases, web services also improves the updating of source geographic data which is often a time consuming and expensive task. MapInfo is already addressing this area through Envinsa, a scaleable web services platform for delivering mapping, geocoding, routing and other enhanced spatial capabilities across the enterprise. Envinsa is centrally managed, giving a consistent view of data, and can make legacy systems more “location aware” by adding geospatial functionality to any application which uses location information.
The future for the geospatial enabled enterprise may rest with the BI and database vendors, and vendors such as MapInfo may gain more traction in the enterprise market through building further on its integration with database and mainstream BI tools. At the mass market end, Google, Yahoo and MSN will continue to provide free geospatial functionality, and the availability of Microsoft MapPoint at a low price point will increase the awareness of geospatial analysis. Indeed, both expense and ease of use are factors which may limit adoption of geospatial applications across an enterprise. MapInfo will need to decide if it wishes to complement the mass market offerings with its own lower cost entry level product aimed at specific geospatial tasks. This could enable it to open the door for further sales and increase awareness of the benefits of enterprise wide geospatial technology.
After all, the technology is already here, the challenge is to educate the enterprise about the commercial potential of applying geography to business data.