by Fred Hapgood

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Helps Enterprise Increase Productivity

Nov 15, 20016 mins
Data Management

One way of looking at technology markets is as an exercise in thermodynamics?as the net balance of the competing influences of heaters and coolers. To heaters, the technology in question is not just obvious, but insanely great?a tool that will change everything for the better. Coolers typically feel that the technology is infested with costs, both hidden and obvious, and that the problem it purports to solve can safely be tolerated awhile longer.

Usually these two parties just come from different ends of the issue. Each, like the blind men feeling the elephant, thinks that the end he has under his hand represents the whole.

Geographic information system (GIS) is a perfect case in point. In 1994, we ran an article on the topic by an unabashed heater (“A Sense of Place,” Feb. 1, 1994). In the article Nora Sherwood Bryan pointed out that geography matters in almost every sphere of business?maintenance, sales, facilities, marketing, distribution, personnel, regulation, inventory. What could be more obvious than using computers to manage and extend these attributes? Given the ubiquity of geography, GIS would bring new powers and efficiencies to every corner of the enterprise. As an industry, the market would run to millions of installations, and dozens of applications would run on each site. The implications were awesome. Nothing would be the same again.

At the time, GIS heaters tended to come from the cartographic and computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) communities. These were people who had been raised on the power of visual information and, in particular, on the authority of maps. A well-made map conveys a huge amount of information at a glance, on a single page, elegantly and beautifully. Clearly, they felt, any technology that allowed us to tap a little deeper in to the magic of maps was bound to pay off in the long run.

Coolers tended to come from management. According to David Sonnen, a consultant on GIS with analyst group IDC (a sister company to CIO’s publisher), management agreed that geography was important, but that did not mean it had gone ignored. People pushed pins into maps, kept index cards sorted by street names, compiled lists in order of geographic zones and mostly consulted an innate geographic intuition learned from experience. All these techniques were cheap, simple and convenient. What was the point of going through the work and expense of digitizing all this data? Kija Kim, president of Harvard Design and Mapping Co., a GIS services shop based in Cambridge, Mass., recalls that potential customers used to have trouble understanding the need for her services. “People would ask, ’But what is it you really do?’” she says.

There was no denying the expense. Few databases understood the concept of searching “within” a location, which meant hiring programmers to solve the problem. Users became responsible for converting paper maps and aerial photos into formats that a GIS application could read. (In the case of photos, geographical borders, altitudes and land uses often had to be drawn in by hand using a monitor and a light pen.) According to Kim, 75 percent of the budgets supporting these installations could be eaten by data conversion costs.

For both of these reasons GIS technology required specialized staff. “Managers would tell me, ’We don’t know how to talk to them, and they don’t know how to talk to us,’” Sonnen says. Staff, hardware, software and data could easily run to a half-million dollars a year. As a result, most GIS clients in the early ’90s were large players with very clear applications: utilities, telcos and government agencies.

However, during the ’90s, private data services appeared that organized, maintained and sold access to libraries of predigitized geographic data. Databases became geographically aware. Years of effort and experience produced “vertical” GIS interfaces that were adapted to specific industrial contexts and that didn’t require rocket scientists to run. “The specialized interfaces reduced training from two years to a few days,” says Sonnen. Hardware prices fell and fell again.

In addition, GIS benefited from three pieces of good fortune: The general trend to all things digital meant that as local and regional governments began operating digitally, more public information (census data, assessor’s records, street maps, land use) become available without conversion costs. The Internet made data distribution cheap, reliable, rapid and automatic. The globalization of the world economy meant companies in emerging countries could offer low-cost scanning and digitization services for maps and photos. All of these advances lowered GIS costs by at least two orders of magnitude, according to Gil Castle, vice president of content at Vectiv, a software developer in Berkeley, Calif., that offers a solution for real estate acquisition and development. Sometimes, as in’s Internet service, these costs went to zero for the end user.

This collapse in costs meant that GIS was finally able to permeate all the functions that Bryan had seen seven years ago. Today companies embed GIS in data warehousing, human resources, materials, facilities, sales-force automation, customer service and marketing applications. As it has pervaded these applications, however, it has dropped from sight as a specific industry and a discrete class of products. When a soft drink company installs a system that automatically flags the nearest repair truck after a vending machine goes down, the product is marketed and managed as maintenance software. When a forestry company buys a program that promises to figure out the fastest, cheapest way of getting trees to lumber mills, it buys a logistics program. They just assume that the program knows where these mills are relative to each other. No one would call a CRM program that made use of demographics based on a customer’s ZIP code a GIS product.

GIS has become a gear in decision support systems, barely visible to those not building the geographic code or writing the data subscription checks. (This change in profile is mirrored by a change in name: Today GIS is commonly replaced by the more general term spatial information management.)

In a sense the predictions of the heaters have been borne out in that GIS is as pervasive as they imagined. But the victory is not entirely sweet; getting the win meant that the technology had to lose its identity. Of course, it wasn’t a complete sacrifice. Today when Kim tells people what she does, she says they get it. They get it right away.