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.