It might seem odd that Google would plough thousands of man hours into creating an application such as Google Earth, which most people use to get a neat helicopter view of their house. But while it's undoubtedly fun, there are some very serious business applications for the whizzy Google tool which is part of an emerging area known as geographical information systems (GIS).
Business awareness of GIS is growing, with companies beginning to see its potential when it comes to creating more efficient workflow, better customer management and business analytics.
GIS applications are essentially tools for capturing, analysing and displaying all forms of geographic information. While GIS has spent most of the last 10 years in specialised backroom activities, it has now made its way to the front of house — call centres, emergency services and so on.
"I think the migration of GIS into the commercial market has become much more acceptable due to people going onto Google or Yahoo or Microsoft and seeing what can be done and thinking 'How can I apply that to my business processes?'," says Gavin Lewis, head of commercial markets for Ordnance Survey, the UK's national mapping agency.
The key advantage of spatially representing information is that "people can understand it quickly and easily, whether in organisations looking to deploy resources or manage assets, or looking at sales calls and insurance claims".
Pole Star, a specialist in asset tracking, is looking into the potential of integrating its Purplefinder Web interface product with Google Earth. The company deals mostly with the maritime industry and has been instrumental in drawing up legislation that covers how ships should be equipped with security alert systems to combat piracy.
A popular practical application of GIS is satellite navigation — drivers using GPS-assisted devices to get their directions — but Ordnance Survey's Lewis suggests this is only the part of an effective GIS-based fleet management plan.
"All the home-delivery companies are looking to optimise their fleets and get more deliveries in," says Lewis.
While satellite navigation alone offers an accuracy of about 10m, it can be combined with data about road restrictions, low bridges, vehicle weight limits, one-way systems and congestion charges to provide much more useful information at the planning stage. "What we're doing is not only providing the data but, through Net services, providing greater accuracy in positioning," he adds.
Ordnance Survey is working with Transport for London to compile a digital speed map for all areas within the M25.
It is also working to provide support for insurance risk surveyors. "If we can do a desk study and pull a lot of information together, we can then send that information across the network to a local operative, who can use the mapping to annotate the information onsite," said Lewis.
The insurance industry also makes increasing use of GIS to evaluate, for example, the flood risk to specific properties rather than lumping all the buildings within a postcode into one risk category. This allows insurers to set more competitive premiums for those properties that are at reduced risk.
GIS is particularly useful for getting to know your customers. One company that has found an enormous market in this field has been Loyalty Management Services (LMS), which manages the ubiquitous Nectar card scheme and has partners ranging from Sainsbury's and Dulux to BP and the AA.
LMS uses GIS to analyse catchment areas for its sponsors. In conjunction with traditional marketing tools, such as surveys and leaflets, the technology allows LMS to present information such as customer loyalty and buying habits in "heat map" form. When combined with time-based information such as the opening of a competitor's store in the area or seasonal variations, the result can bring to life who's buying what, where and when.
LMS even puts maps on the letters it sends to Nectar card-holders moving house. The maps detail shops local to the new residence where loyalty points can be earned. Speaking at the annual Association for Geographic Information conference in London in September, LMS's client insights director Koos Berkhout claimed some customers were even using the maps to tell friends where they had moved to.
Mobility and CRM
GIS could also become an integral part of customer relations management (CRM) as work patterns become more flexible, according to Paul Greenberg, the author of CRM At The Speed Of Light.
"The real value proposition comes in with mobility — not just pretty ways of looking at data," says Greenberg. "Businesses understand that people do personal things in business, that they go home and continue their work. That means the acceptance of things such as devices that have specific platforms on them, for example a Blackberry using AppExchange from Salesforce."
Salesforce's latest update lets users create "mashups" — customisations of its analytical tools using custom-built components and those from other companies — and chief executive Marc Benioff recently attributed this development to the "heavy lifting" done by Google and others.
Collaborations between operators and device developers are starting to make a difference in field services, says CRM specialist Greenberg. He describes a scenario where dozens of field workers are deployed around a city with GPS-enabled devices: "You can zoom in and choose one or two and see what they're up to. It's phenomenally well done, in real time. Field services is a place where GIS is already being used and it is maturing."
However, Greenberg also warns that ubiquitous functionality is needed if GIS is to become integral. "Data points associated with maps make life easier," he says. "If I can do this when I need to know geographic information about a business I'm about to go visit, or if I can contact all my technicians, then it makes my life and job easier. GIS becomes important to the population when it satisfies the requirements of the individuals within it. If it's something that you don't think to do then it might be cool but it won't last."
This sort of functionality should be finding its way into local government, according to Ian White, Oracle's public sector industry director.
White sees a vast amount of potential for GIS — some of which is being realised in a small number of councils — in a range of applications ranging from providing spatial information to mobile council workers to making call centres more efficient.
Like Greenberg, he thinks mobility is the key. "I think that GIS has always been important, but the importance has only been recognised outside a specialised community of GIS specialists with the steady improvements in the technology that's available, particularly the link with mobile technology," he says. "I think business is missing a trick if they don't take advantage of the synergy that exists between spatial and mobile technology."
White's concern is that GI has long been regarded as being only of interest to technologically-minded people, but he sees GPS systems and greater use of Internet-based mapping services as two factors that could change this perception.
"It's similar in a way to the increased expectations that citizens have got from online banking, for online services from the public sector. I think the same kind of principle applies [with GIS] — you have rising expectations from citizens because of their experience, but I suspect that the senior people in public sector organisations haven't made the connection between using it personally and the fact that they have had GIS specialists in their organisations for years," he says.
There is a need to educate the general IT community on the kinds of technology and benefits GIS can deliver, but the GIS community would also benefit from an understanding of what a typical chief information officer is concerned about and trying to identify how that can help solve that individual's problems, adds White.
One rare example of a UK local authority putting GIS into practical use, says White, is an (unidentified) authority that maps its "street furniture" and links that information to its call centre staff; when a passerby rings the council to say a street light has gone out, the operator speaking to them can quickly identify which light they mean.
This is the sort of functionality that can make interaction with the public more useful — White praises New York, where citizens can call one number to access the full spectrum of their local services, as a model for how local authorities can make the most of GI — and also help services operate more efficiently.
Central government seems to be ahead of its localised counterparts in this regard, as a major review into public sector call centres is currently being conducted for the Treasury by Sir David Varney, the head of HM Revenue & Customs.
"This is saying, give the contact centre a better set of tools and they can adopt better working practices, and that will be a tremendous way to improve public services," White suggests.
The explanatory capabilities of GI can also make it easier to educate people, or just prove a point. The new version of Google Earth gives users several interesting overlays that illustrate environmental degradation, including data from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the US National Park Service and the Jane Goodall Service.
A glance at UNEP's comparative overlays for a portion of the Amazon rain forest, showing the effects of deforestation (this can be found in Google Earth's "Featured Content" section), shows what potential can lie in combining different data sources through GIS.
It is a comparison that's a lot easier to understand if you can see it in pictures and put it in context. And context, ultimately, is where geographic information systems make the difference.