I have just returned from EsriUK's user event in London. Some 2,500 users, channel and Esri people were comparing ideas and showing what they were doing with Esri's GIS tools - and the place did seem to be buzzing.
To my mind, the world is moving towards a bigger need for spatially intelligent tools. However, for many, such a need is still nascent - there is still little understanding of what a fully intelligent GIS tool can do within a business. To many, Esri (and its main competitor, PBBI's MapInfo) are just mapping tools - maybe with greater detail than Google or Bing Maps with better overlays and so on, but nothing much more than that. That perception is present in those who have heard of Esri or MapInfo - but also too many organisations that could make use of the tools are still unaware of these companies.
So, what can GIS do for a business? In the retail space, it can be used to optimise logistics; to decide where a new distribution warehouse or a new outlet should be positioned; or to decide when seasonal perishable goods should be delivered to different shops around the country to minimise waste and maximise sales. In utilities, it can be used to log assets and to help in planning such things as where to dig trenches for laying pipes and cables, ensuring that existing underground items are not impacted. In education, it can be used as an educational tool to help students learn more about the world around them.
All of these are common usage cases and have been around for some time. But GIS is also seeing other technologies come through that will play to its strengths.
Consider building information modelling (BIM) systems. Here, vendors such as Arup, Autodesk and Bentley provide systems that are asset-focussed in dealing with how buildings are managed. For example, a BIM system will contain details of all the items that make up a specific building: depending on the system, this could be at a high level (covering things like the chairs, tables and other fixed and non-fixed items placed within a building) through to highly granular systems that cover the components that went in to constructing the building in the first place - the type of concrete, the position of lintels, the type of glass used and so on.
BIM systems have historically been pretty much self-contained. Items that were moved from one building to another, were broken and disposed of or replaced as part of standard maintenance procedures have had to be manually input into the system. The internet of things (IoT) may be in a good position to help change this, though.
Some time back, there was the thought that radio frequency identification (RFID) tags would be used to track assets, but a lack of true standardisation and cost meant that except for with certain areas, this did not take off. Now, as the IoT starts to take off, low cost sensors and monitors that are visible directly through existing networks will become possible. IoT tags can be attached to pretty much anything and monitored through the right systems - already, disposable temperature sensors are being dropped into concrete to optimise how concrete is poured, and the military are looking at using IoT devices in battlefield situations in a massive way. BIM will be an obvious one for these - but it will also require spatial context. Where, in both a 2D and 3D world, do these assets actually exist? In real time, can they be plotted in a meaningful way?
And the assets may not just be the inanimate objects of chairs, tables, computers, vending machines and so on. People are just as important when looking at the security needs of today's highly dynamic environments.
Esri demonstrated an example of this at the event. Replicating the Harry Potter "Marauders' Map", where the footprints of people at Hogwarts could be seen on a 2D map in real time was a pretty nifty demonstration. However, taking this to the next level and twisting the map to one side so that it became 3D showed the power of GIS.
Whereas the 2D map showed that 2 people were close together, the 3D map showed how they were several storeys apart in the building.
Now let's take this a little further. A personal example was when I had to take my wife to hospital to have a broken ankle seen to. She was obviously not that mobile - yet the fracture clinic was some way from the entrances. When we checked in at reception, we were told that we needed to go to the X-Ray clinic first - a distance away. We got to the X-Ray clinic, and were sent back to get paperwork that the fracture clinic had neglected to give us. We bounced backward and forward between various departments for a couple of hours. Equipment that could have been optimised in its usage was left unused; time was wasted - the process was a bit of a mess.
It could have been so different through the smart use of technology. Track our phones using a GIS system and overlay this onto a BIM and then analyse the results to see where the process involved is broken. Then, use a BIM project planning tool, such as Asta Powerproject BIM to run a project that optimises the whole process.
In discussion with EsriUK's managing director, Stuart Bonthrone, we discussed how GIS is misunderstood. Where GIS is really now aiming is as a data aggregator, combining its own data sets with data from other systems, such as BIM and other systems and then acting as a full business intelligence analysis tool ensuring that the visualisation of the results is carried out in a flexible and effective manner to suit the needs of as many users as possible.
It's a long way from mapping - but it is a potentially massive market; and a very exciting one.