Geospatial Analysis 101: A Place and Time for Business Data
Shane Skiles, Development Consultant, Application Development Services
Thursday, October 18, 2012
While geospatial analysis is a relatively new concept in business intelligence, its essential concepts are really not novel at all. It is simply analysis of data which has a geographical aspect. The data itself can vary spatially and vary over time. It is simply taking this geographic aspect and putting it on a map to more easily analyze its relation to other sometimes disparate data sets.
Spatial analysis is something we do almost every day of our lives. It is how we assess where we are in our environment. It helps us determine where a cup is on a table, how far away the door is, even finding our way to the kitchen. We use our senses to help us determine our environment.
Geospatial analysis helps us determine where things are on a global scale. The simplest sense we can use to help determine an object's place in the world is with our sight using a map. You can't feel how far away something is if it isn't within reach, hear a zip code across the country, taste where a package is or smell where customers are.
Maps have been a part of human culture for thousands of years. From outlines drawn in dirt with sticks to high definition satellite imagery, maps have helped us find our place in the world. Maps have advanced from crude estimations of distances, sizes, and relative directions to highly accurate tools that can be used for a multitude of purposes.
Almost everyone has seen surveying crews on the side of a street. Their basic tool of the trade is a theodolite. A theodolite is a tool for measuring angles and planes and has been in existence since the 16th century. So, in a sense, "modern" cartography tools have existed for hundreds of years. Since we have been mapping the world around us for so long, there are literally thousands of different types of information that can be overlaid on a map to help visualize data.
Some of the data sources available almost never or rarely change such as landmarks, addresses, state lines, topology or geology. Other data sources change slowly over time such as household census data (income levels, age groups, etc.), wildlife ecology or drought regions. Yet other data sources can change minute by minute such as weather (reports, forecasts, and warnings), earthquakes, GPS enabled devices or even location enabled social media.
With the advent of computers, geospatial information systems started to evolve making maps more interactive. Maps could be overlaid to create more comprehensive views of the data available. Geospatial analysis allows for visual representation of data as it relates to the real world.
Temporal analysis is traditionally accomplished through graphs and charts using time as one of the axes. Geospatial temporal analysis can be accomplished through playback of graphical elements displayed on a map. This makes it much easier to spot trends happening regionally over time within data sets.
As far as practical business applications of geospatial analysis go, you first need to know what you want to analyze and where it is. Any company with physical assets has geospatial data. Mobile assets such as people and vehicles can be tracked in near real time with commercial devices or cellular phones. Almost any stationary asset with an address, even customer and/or supplier assets can be geocoded to a location with a very high degree of accuracy. Other assets without addresses will almost always have their locations recorded with a high degree of accuracy when they are installed, placed, or discovered in their environment. Once geospatial data is identified, it can easily be aggregated into zip codes, counties, states, and so on.
Practically any type of business can benefit from spatial analysis for better decision making:
- Using demographic data alone, small businesses could identify zip codes target with advertising. This demographic could be higher income households with older residents and fewer children within the city. Using a simple query like that may yield five zip codes to target. But once this data is visualized on a map, it is possible to use a geospatial data to see that four of the zip codes are grouped together and the other one is on the far side of the city, to help target advertising.
- Retailers have been able to use geospatial data to identify unexpected items that sell well before storms or severe weather. The sales numbers appear as just a small bump when looking at the big picture, but when displayed on a map, it could be a significant boost that follows a storm system. This could help in inventory planning for future storm events.
- Municipalities use geospatial data to help in urban planning and development. Most towns and cities usually grew symbiotically through residents, infrastructure, businesses, environmental factors and other concerns. Now cities can be planned to accommodate these factors and concerns with a multitude of others much more easily. This can help the health, happiness, and safeties of residents by ensuring needed resources are easily accessible to everyone.
- Utility companies can use up to the minute data to help determine storm paths, lightning strike, outage and service crew locations to help pre-position assets during storm events. Geospatial analysis can be used as a tool for everyday operations or unexpected events.
- Oil and gas companies can easily visualize company and competitor assets along with existing and permitted wells using GIS systems. By combining that data with existing gas analysis, geology, shale and gas play formation data they can make more informed decisions more easily using geospatial analysis.
- Trucking companies use geospatial analysis techniques to help plan routes and delivery schedules to save on mileage and monitor driver safety. These techniques are used so extensively that Jack Levis, UPS Director of Process Management, is quoted as saying, “We’ve moved from being a trucking company that has technology, to a technology company that just happens to have trucks.”
The world as we know it has not changed dramatically since we first started making maps. However, in the past 30 years, our knowledge of the world and our ability to utilize maps has taken great leaps forward. The concepts behind geospatial analysis are not difficult to grasp, but the information that can be gleaned is significant. It is a very powerful tool that has only started to be used by business communities. We have barely begun to utilize this business paradigm and the possible applications are virtually limitless.