Part 1 - GIS goes mainstream

Read time 5min 10sec

The geographical information system (GIS) and digital mapping technology was once an arcane field presided over by experts working on specialised applications in industries like mining exploration, public health, crime mapping and municipal planning. Today, it's grown into a commonplace part of the IT infrastructure, used for a wide range of business planning and productivity applications across a growing set of industries.

GIS has been pigeonholed in the past as a tool for applications such as real estate, public health and sustainable development, says Etienne Louw, MD of mapIT. But the biggest growth area for the technology today lies in mainstream business applications like managing the mobile workforce.

A survey commissioned by mapIT and released by World Wide Worx earlier this year reveals just how pervasive digital mapping is becoming in South African businesses. The survey found 76% of South African corporations and 38% of SMEs spend more than 2% of their IT budgets on mapping services.
And 22% of larger businesses reported they spend more than R500 000 on digital mapping every year.

The market is already substantial, but it's poised for massive growth over the next year. Two-thirds of large corporations and SMEs said they intend to increase their spending on digital mapping services in 2013.

A spatial consultant is involved in nearly every business discussion, Etienne Louw, mapIT.

Most businesses are still primarily using mapping services for asset tracking application such as fleet management, vehicle tracking and recovery and navigation. But location-based marketing applications are also showing rapid growth, according to the survey.

Companies used to outsource GIS to a GIS company, or may have hired a GIS specialist of their own, using the technology for a few specific and selection applications, says Louw, but now GIS is embedded in core business processes in a growing range of vertical markets.

"Today, executives want to see GIS information on their [BI] portals and dashboards," says Louw. "A spatial consultant is involved in nearly every business discussion."

Mapping out the future

Workforce and asset management is a popular application for GIS throughout Africa, says Louw. For example, freight companies may use digital mapping and real-time traffic information to calculate the fee a truck driver will be paid for making a delivery. This prevents drivers from going off the optimal route so they can claim higher fees.

Companies can use geo-fencing to ensure technicians don't roam outside their allocated territories and that drivers don't take cars into off-limits areas, for example. A geo-fence is a virtual perimeter around a geographic area. When the user, bearing a location-aware device, enters or exits the area, a manager can be alerted.

The big trend we're seeing is strategy and marketing teams using GIS for future planning, Mohammed Areff, CEO, Knowledge Factory.

The convergence of GIS and BI is another sweet spot. Geospatial analysis can add a whole new dimension to analytics by allowing organisations to see product, geographical or customer data represented on a map and so easily grasp geographical trends.

One application that's caught on in the past few years is the usage of GIS and mapping to identify optimal areas for new stores, ATMs, and so on, says Fernridge Consulting MD Sybrand Strauss. Supermarket chains might use GIS to understand the purchasing power of an area, evaluate whether the people in the catchment area fit its customer profile, and assess the quality of the retail site.

Retail banks have also emerged as enthusiastic users of GIS technology for purposes ranging from planning ATM and branch networks through to measuring market share.

Pervasive mapping

Digital mapping is no longer just about visualising information - it's also about combining spatial data with big data such as demographic information to predict the future, says Knowledge Factory CEO Mohammed Areff. "The big trend we're seeing is strategy and marketing teams using GIS for future planning," he adds.

For example, Knowledge Factory overlays geospatial data from the likes of the Surveyor General and the GPS mapping companies with data from sources such as the Deeds Office, census and South African Audience Research Foundation, and then combines it with its clients' own data.

Twenty-two percent of larger businesses spend over R500 000 on digital mapping every year.

Organisations such as retailers and banks can use this data to model future revenue and profile consumer behaviour as they roll-out new points of presence. Such data can provide monthly revenue projections for a retail site with an accuracy rate of 75% or more, claims Areff. In future, data sources such as land claims, environmental assessments and carbon dioxide emission maps may also be thrown into the blender.

Companies don't necessarily need to build out the data sets and technology to run their own GIS platforms, since a range of service providers now sell this sort of information ad-hoc or as a subscription via the Web. Fernridge's AfricaEye portal and Knowledge Factory are just two examples of companies that have built businesses on retailing spatial data online.

Looking ahead, Louw says pervasive mapping and mobility will be two key trends to watch. With the advent of free turn-by-turn navigation on mobile devices - including Google Maps, Nokia Maps, BlackBerry Maps, and Telmap - more and more organisations are starting to understand the value of workers having maps on hand wherever they are.

"When you now combine that with powerful back-end location-based service architectures, you can start offering route optimisation, for example, by using live traffic feeds in a mobile workforce app," says Louw.

This sort of technology can also be extended to location-based marketing, where consumers expect companies to serve only ads and promotions that are relevant to them - for example, based on where they live, where they are at the present moment, or where they will be, taking into account their planned routes and live traffic data.

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