Putting the 'where' into your analytics

Geographic information can be the missing piece in the business intelligence puzzle.

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Improving decision-making at the EPA

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also has found GIS-enabled analytics to be a time-saver. The organization, which acts as an aggregator for government, academic, private industry and legacy databases, has started to count on the GIS/analytics combo to hasten and improve decision-making across all agency interests.

"We've united what have traditionally been two disparate technology stacks to carry out missions, evaluate policy and assess where we need to do additional work," says Jerry Johnston, EPA Geospatial Information Officer.

It has been more of an evolutionary process than an "event," Johnston explains, but there were a couple of drivers behind the marriage of the technologies at the agency. One was EPA's Environmental Information Exchange Network, an Internet-based system used by state, tribal and territorial partners to securely share environmental and health information with one another and EPA, according to Johnston.

Jerry Johnston
The Environmental Protection Agency has "united what have traditionally been two disparate technology stacks to carry out missions, evaluate policy and assess where we need to do additional work," says Jerry Johnston, the EPA's geospatial information officer.

"Data from regulated industry has been coming in to EPA for years, and users naturally wanted to map much of this information," Johnston explains. "Uniting GIS with our Exchange Network has been a focus of the agency for some time."

More recently, to help manage environmental grants issued under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the need to "bring together reporting information coming in from grant recipients with our geographic information systems was critical. "

These days, the EPA blends GIS and traditional data from myriad sources to monitor water quality across U.S. with its Hydrologic Benchmark Network. States, counties, municipalities and tribal nations continuously push geographically referenced and time-stamped stream water-quality updates onto the Network. If an anomaly is detected, the EPA can immediately tell from the integrated GIS data whether the station is upstream or downstream, which other areas could be affected and how soon. Because the data is displayed on a dynamic map, problems are immediately conveyed to anyone who needs to know, leading to faster response, Johnston says.

The EPA also uses GIS-enabled analytics for its ongoing air quality index. Pairing maps with current and historical air quality data as well as temperatures and wind readings guides operational responses. As one example, because asthmatic children have more symptoms when the air quality is poor, the EPA can instantly notify local officials so they can decide whether to close schools. Something as specific as knowing if the school serves a hilly or flat region, which GIS shows, would impact where the alert is issued, Johnston says.

The EPA combines its Oracle Database and Esri's ArcGIS Server with Google Maps and Microsoft Bing, simplifying otherwise complex tools for users. "Our users expect to see maps with their charts and models, so it's helpful that the analytics vendors are integrating GIS with their tools and the GIS vendors are integrating BI. That hasn't really happened before," Johnston says.

Experts required

Though this consumerization is occurring at a rapid clip, some organizations, including the ASPCA, still rely on GIS experts to partner with data analysts for development, integration and analysis. In fact, the ASPCA's Miller, who has GIS Professional (GISP) and American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) credentials, was brought into the organization specifically to help with the GIS pilot program.

IDC's Vesset agrees that adding GIS to the data gathering and input mix can complicate matters. "From a data management perspective, you need appropriate infrastructure and processes in place because you're dealing with large amounts of data," he says.

EDENS' Beitz has found the problem lies with data integration, not data entry. The cities and counties that his firm deals with have closed, proprietary databases, making it impossible to easily extract data.

"They don't have the capacity or desire to serve out their map data to be consumed as services in other applications," he says.

If the government data were to be widely available, companies would save a tremendous amount of time, according to Beitz. Today, to find information on an adjacent parcel of land where EDENS wants to expand, the company has to dig through the county's website.

"Imagine if we could open up our GIS application and display the counties' GIS data as an additional layer that can be queried," Beitz says. "We could set up alerts to tell us if the zoning has changed on any land within three miles of our property and track changes in property ownership near development sites."

VTN's Warren has experienced similar pains, causing the company's GIS database to be built bit by bit from data gathered during individual projects.

For EDENS, VTN, the EPA and other organizations, data openness is the next big frontier for fully integrating GIS with business analytics. "This would help us to more closely monitor our target markets and to quickly take advantage of emerging opportunities," Beitz says.

Sandra Gittlen is a freelance technology writer in the Boston area. Contact her at sgittlen@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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