Got GIS? A niche technology goes mainstream

Consumers may think of geographic information systems (GIS) as Web applications they use to get maps and directions, but GIS tools do a lot more than help people get from location A to location B. Businesses are adding a spatial dimension to data to help make critical decisions in this tough economy. General Motors and other automakers, for example, used GIS tools to help it figure out which dealerships the car maker should close.

Jack Dangermond knows as much about business analytics and GIS as anyone in the business. He's been at it for 40 years, since founding the Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc. (ESRI) in 1969.

You may never have heard of ESRI. Its tools have long been the province of specialists in areas such as land management, government and transportation logistics. But as Web-based front ends and Web services technology have evolved, the GIS tools have become easier for business analysts to use. Last month, ESRI launched its new MapIt service to make business analysis using GIS tools easier for Microsoft shops. And cloud-based GIS services are broadening access to GIS, allowing analysts to use GIS services without maintaining a GIS server in house.

I spoke with Dangermond, ESRI's president, for a Computerworld profile of Dangermond that ran in print. What got left out? An important discussion about why business GIS goes way beyond what you see with Google Maps, how GIS is solving a wider array of business problems, and how mash-ups with GIS and ERP systems are resulting in new applications that add a very visual, spatial dimension to business decision making. Dangermond thinks GIS has the potential to become another key pillar in the IT infrastructure.

Here's why.

Jack Dangermond

You've said that GIS services that go beyond simple maps and images are coming. Can you give an example of where you see things going? There will be lots and lots of services available both inside the enterprise and on the open Web. We're already seeing this, and the services will be standards-based, open and interoperable and mash-able. People will orchestrate multiple services to support new applications, and this orchestration will include things like integrating ERP databases with maps or embedding maps inside of ERP applications using SOAP and traditional Web services architectures. Multiple kinds of data sets, map layers and database tables will be brought together dynamically in these lightweight applications as rich Internet applications.

GIS has traditionally been viewed as a niche technology. In the future, how important will GIS be in business? In the state of California the new CIO just released a policy that makes GIS one of the six major IT platforms at the enterprise level for the state [and] 80% of states are integrating GIS as part of their enterprise plan. We see that in business, we see in the whole CIO community that GIS has gone mainstream. I think it's important to your readers that they don't niche it as it has been in the past and begin to consider the power of geographic information systems to make their businesses better.

Are the consumer mapping and visualization offerings from folks like Google and Microsoft complementary to what you do -- or competitors? There's a distinction between consumer geospatial visualization stuff, applications that both Google and Microsoft have pioneered, and the professional GIS space.

To have the high volume, scalable visualization and mapping services these consumer applications represent, the data and the technology must be designed to perform there. That means very simple data models and very simple and limited things one can do with that data. That's distinct from the rich modeling and analytic environment that a GIS server represents.

Google and Microsoft both spend millions of dollars on content layers. We view them as huge content providers for the GIS market and we use them and exploit them for that very reason.

Do you see GIS as an enterprise information system on the same level as, say, ERP? GIS is an information system just like the others, transactionally maintained as geography changes, with multiple views, maps and analytic views and reports that provide information.

What is the implication of locating here? How do I manage my forest? Where do I drill? Where do I route my trucks? Seeing situation awareness, integrating my mobile workers around geographic information, is extremely valuable, with big returns on investment.

How has the Web opened up access to GIS? Today they go to their GIS people and say I'd like to figure out the best location for something and [the GIS staff] run a model and come back with map with the result. They apply the geographic approach. Those capabilities are now available in a Web server. I can run a model half way around the world in a browser that forecasts for example flooding in Southern Texas given a certain rainfall event. I can also mash up that model with base maps that come out of other servers and get really powerful visual and analytic results. People will increasingly want to do that more sophisticated analysis, both in the consumer space and in the professional space.

That has implications because it means that one has to have a different data model, a different technology foundation than is commonly in these hundred million views a day mapping sites.

How is GIS being integrated with traditional business analytics? It is already happening with MapIt. This is a mapping intelligence product that is designed for the Microsoft stack. It uses SQL Server as a database and provides map reports out of SQL Server as a restful service. These maps can be embedded into things like SharePoint. The service has a full Silverlight API client so developers can customize this new kind of mapping intelligence in their existing applications.

This approach is different than traditional GIS. It's really mapping for the whole business intelligence community and it comes with map layers that can be loaded into SQL Server, associated with enterprise data and served as maps into SharePoint or a Silverlight application. It includes geocoding tools and a restful map service that can be mashed up with other kinds of services across the enterprise.

[MapIt] is very much oriented toward the business intelligence world [where] there are reports and tables and analytics and charts -- and now there's maps. Microsoft thinks of it as a way to distinguish its business intelligence platform.

With everything moving into the cloud, how far do you envision GIS evolving as a software as a service delivery model? We have implemented this online as a Web service using the SaaS approach. Our product is called Business Analyst Online. We make tens of thousands of analyses every day over the Web through an e-commerce address where people put in an address, generate drive time trade areas around that address and overlay those areas on different demographic and other factors to generate standardized reports. Commercial real estate agents use that. We also provide it to small business retailers for evaluating different properties.

How are software as a service models for delivering GIS applications changing the way businesses use GIS? Historically ESRI has provided a lot of data in the box, like a base map of the world or geodemographics. We put millions of dollars of data sets into the maps and data CD. People love that. ArcGIS Online is online maps and data, and in some cases geoprocessing services, that are available to users as part of their software. ArcGIS Online is GIS in the cloud.

Our next release will allow users to host their data in the cloud and use the ArcGIS server in the cloud, rather than as an on-premise implementation. This certainly is not for everyone. But for very small organizations, for example, they can take advantage of this and have a smaller footprint of technology and data that they have to maintain.

What are some of the newer and more innovative ways in which businesses are using GIS data beyond traditional niches? When I think of GIS traditionally I think of government and land use planning and management. The applications that have been promoted in the private sector have been largely logistics. The automotive industry is using GIS to reconfigure dealership boundaries and to help with making those very difficult decisions. But there are many other applications.

Insurance companies use it as a standard way to look at risk. They do claims analysis, overlaying where a claim comes in and comparing it to the actual disaster that hit. They're improving the way that they do target marketing, what kinds of target populations would buy what kinds of insurance policies.

In the manufacturing area a lot of users track the location of shipments. This is particularly true in the chemical business. In the manufacturing business there's a lot of interest in supply chain analysis. People want to understand their own supply chain and its vulnerabilities.

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