Geographic information systems invade big data

Geographic information systems (GIS), which are best known for their mapping functions, are invading big data. These systems have reached new levels through their ability to provide locational context to vast pools of information.

GIS can now isolate patterns, adjust strategies and pinpoint the biggest opportunities for businesses.

“Much of the discussion on big data is focusing on volume — the hours of video on the Web, social media interactions — but the challenge is to present the ocean of data as a pool of useful facts,” said Simon Thompson, director of commercial solutions at GIS vendor Esri. “GIS is a natural way to connect data, control its size and make it more relevant and usable.”

The biggest users of GIS so far have been government planners and policy makers, said Matt Felton, president of Datastory Consulting, who has been working with GIS technology for 20 years. Photo credit: Shutterstock/ Mesut Dogan

Businesses such as Shell, General Motors, Walmart, Starbucks and Nike are now using this potent technological combo better to understand customer behavior and align marketing campaigns to buying patterns.

GIS can convert data into maps, which makes it easier to visualize trends than via a spreadsheet. “Geography is one of the most natural, logical and intuitive ways to discover, visualize, overlay, compare, slice, sort and apply big data to a problem,” said Thompson.

But it’s telecommunications companies that have been making the most significant use of GIS. Paul Ramsey, vice president, product management, at open-source geospatial software and services vendor Boundless, said that geographic locations have become a key element in analyzing new data streams because mobile devices are constantly changing positions. This has required companies to look with increasing scrutiny at where consumers are downloading information and photos and making purchases.

“GIS used to be about the analysis of relatively static institutional data, but new data streams mean that today’s GIS problems look very much the same as today’s big data problems: extract meaningful information from a fire hose of inputs,” said Ramsey.

Disconnected pools

One of the challenges with big data is connecting data sets. Systems often don’t talk to each other and there can be turf wars over data custodianship.

Location is becoming a common ground where you can unite the pieces. GIS has various ways to unite such resources as data warehouses, spreadsheets and unstructured data stores functionally and analytically.

Location analytics, for example, would allow you to run a query across Salesforce.com customer data and MicroStrategy business intelligence data from Microsoft Office to create a data map in the cloud. It can also push images to an iPad dashboard.

In a power outage, GIS can enable utilities to map locations and cross-correlate the information with census, property and other databases to see where to dispatch emergency personnel.

Fewer entry barriers

To be sure, the need for clearer pictures of information has driven demand for GIS, but so has accessibility. Matt Felton, president of Datastory Consulting, has been working with GIS technology for 20 years. For most of that time the biggest users of GIS were government planners and policy makers, he said.

However, over the past five years, an increasing number of companies have started using the technology. Felton said that is because companies such as Esri have made the technology better, faster and less expensive. Its availability in the cloud has bolstered this trend.

“A map-based view of data has opened up a host of new questions that can be asked,” Felton said. “It cures an analytic blind spot — location — that many [business intelligence] systems have lacked, and that has made big data a lot more valuable.”

Companies are already finding that they can answer key business questions faster. Instead of consulting analysts, they can dissect issues via neatly crafted images. “Technology has to not only be awesome, but it has to look awesome if it wants to enjoy wide adoption,” Felton said. “I think this is another area where GIS has made a big difference.”

Drew Robb
Originally from Scotland, Drew Robb has been a freelance writer for 20 years, specializing in IT, engineering and business. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment by CRC Press.
Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Tags: Business Intelligence,Data Center,Technology