Have You Mapped Your Data Today?

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Are you connecting your data to a map? You should. Attractive and easy to understand, map-based presentations often make patterns more obvious than charts and graphs do. Many organizations are discovering the power of geographic information systems to incorporate location-specific data into effective visual presentations.

Recently, I learned that 20 years ago specialists were asserting that 80% of all data contains geographical references . That sounded high, so I asked Stuart Hamilton , GIS program director at the College of William and Mary, to clarify. His estimate: 95% is more accurate today. New technology is partially responsible, including cell phones, GPS devices and electronic toll collectors.

Government users pioneered GIS for monitoring lot boundaries, water run-off, population movements and more. GIS is widely used to coordinate evacuations and emergency supplies and monitor the spread of diseases, among other things.

On the business side, distribution companies have used GIS to monitor and manage their fleets for years. Energy companies have used seismic data to determine drilling locations. And for consumers, mapping software has been combined with location-based information to create easily understood maps that can show everything from the air quality in certain areas to the locations of public restrooms, high-crime zones or Kentucky's bourbon distilleries -- the possibilities are endless.

If you think GIS has a place in your business, prepare to address challenges like these:

• GIS increases IT demand. GIS will enable new capabilities in most industries. Examples abound. The American Printing House for the Blind is developing an in-home GPS for blind people. And as users comprehend the power of GIS, they demand more GIS-related services.

• Data volumes grow rapidly. GIS requires a location tag for each data point. Many organizations start with ZIP codes, but GIS usually demands more precise locations: longitude, latitude and elevation. Many GIS applications also require time stamps for every measurement.

• New expertise is required. I always thought longitude and latitude were constant. They are, as long as you know which type you're using. There are literally thousands of mapping approaches; a GIS needs to specify the data standard used. Moreover, the widely used World Geodetic System is updated periodically, so data must specify a version: WGS 1984, WGS 1972, etc. State and local governments typically use the much simpler State Plane Coordinate System , which ignores the curvature of the Earth but is accurate for local use. GIS programmers must learn geospatial concepts and choose among specialized development environments and spatial data management systems.

• GIS can be expensive. You need new data, tools and skills. Open-source tools and free geospatial data are adequate for creating a Google Maps mashup or for piloting business projects. But most organizations find that effective GIS requires more granular (and often expensive) data. Finally, GIS programming is highly specialized. A developer typically requires significant training to become productive.

It's easy to plan for tomorrow's weather by watching The Weather Chanell's progressive weather map . Businesses will soon use similar maps to analyze and predict where their customers live, work, shop and travel. Your competitors will use GIS soon. Don't be the last company to adopt this valuable technology.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc. , which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com .

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This story, "Have You Mapped Your Data Today?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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