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Explaining Southern California's economy

As big data gets bigger, GIS marketers' place on the map expands

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When Starbucks is deciding where to put a new location…when the World Health Organization needs to find out where polio is still a threat…when a city wants to know if its planned new convention center is in a flood zone…they all use maps.

Of course, the maps have gotten a lot more advanced and accessible.  Google and GPS providers have put interactive maps at our fingertips and in our cars' dashboards. The term for computerized mapping and all that comes with it is "GIS" for Geographical Information Systems.   Over the years, the market for "GIS" software alone has grown to between $3 and $4 billion per year.

Thousands of data locations... in Rancho Cucamonga

The city of Rancho Cucamonga has a GIS budget of a $1.1 million per year.  A GIS staff of 10 to 12 provides layered maps of everything from fire zones to sidewalk cracks to banners saluting military service personnel. It's mapped the campuses of local schools, with 360-degree photo pans of classrooms. The maps come up on tablet and computer screens in offices, fire trucks, and the Chevy suburban driven by Fire Department Battalion Chief Ivan Rojer.  

"It takes the guesswork out of the game," Rojer says, as he demonstrates how a call into the emergency dispatch center almost immediately pops on a map.  A few mouse clicks later, and little helicopter icons appear, indicating all the safe-landing zones the GIS department has mapped out in the city. 

The city's GIS department has also mapped and assigned a number to every light pole along the Pacific Electric Trail, used for hiking, biking and horseback riding in Rancho Cucamonga and four other cities.  When an emergency call comes in from the trail, the dispatcher asks the caller to check the nearest light pole for the "PET" number, which comes up on a map like a street address and pinpoints the location for emergency responders. 

With a light pole estimated at every 54 steps, mapping and numbering them would seem like long and tedious work.  Actually, it just took a couple of days.

"This is small... compared to all the Edison light posts in the city," says Solomon Nimako, Senior GIS and Fire analyst for Rancho Cucamonga. "We've driven to every corner of the city and picked over 17,000 points." 

Businesses show and tell...on 'location'  

GIS was the subject of a recent conference in San Diego sponsored by industry leader Esri, the Environmental Systems Research Institute.  Hundreds of business people filled a meeting room recently for the two-day Business Summit that precedes the Esri user conference.   

"People describe this as the Super Bowl of Maps in business," said Simon Thompson, Director of Commercial Solutions for Esri, and the emcee of the Business Summit. 

"This is a community of  people that are really applying location-based analysis: taking that data that we use every single day and making our businesses better," Thompson told KPCC.

Now that most people move around with a connected handheld device, most businesses know that mapping will help figure out how to engage them. The list of companies on the summit's presentation agenda confirmed that.

Representatives of Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Hobby Lobby, Wendy's and the makers of Singha beer made presentations at the summit about how their companies use GIS. In a presentation called "Beer, Beards, and Batteries," Rosemary Radich of Accuweather Enterprise Solutions showed how the maps helped its business customers leverage the weather to maximize profits. Conway Freight showed how it’s mapping out the stops where its truck drivers are losing time waiting to load or unload their hauls.

"I’d like to suggest to you that G-I-S is the new suit and tie," Matt Felton, president of Maryland-based DataStory Consulting, told the summit. "The new suit and tie is coming with technology that is clear and that gives you a sense of command on the data."

Matt Felton calls GIS "the new suit and tie."

Felton explained how his firmed helped a commercial real estate revive a vacant eye-sore of a shopping center in his state by mapping the demographics of its surrounding area. He told KPCC how his firm uses GIS to help businesses and non-profits understand their customer or donor databases.

"It’s a list of people and there’s these hidden patterns in there that you don’t know about," he said. "And when you put them on a map and you enrich them – or we would say geo-enrich them - based on some of this Esri data that’s brought to the table, we can start to understand their lifestyle and know that maybe 30 percent are the 'laptop and latte' crowd or 40 percent are 'prosperous empty nesters'."

The business summit was also's Esri's chance to show off its latest software platforms.  Staffers made multimedia presentations showing how easily the technology embeds in everyday programs like Microsoft's Excel. In a demo of new 3-D mapping software on a big screen, Brooks Patrick had mapped the population density and median income of the San Diego area, and the bars on his graph resembled buildings in the San Diego Skyline.

It’s the kind of mapped data a guy like John Crouse swears by. He’s the Director of Real Estate Services for Wendy’s. In his presentation, he explained his company’s many uses of the data, including for the Human Resources department to determine the starting salary or starting hourly wage rate for employees.

"Sometimes we make bad location decisions," Crouse told KPCC after his presentation. Part of his job is is of course to try to avoid that, and the data-rich maps help.

Wendy’s is going through a major image overhaul, and Crouse explained how he’s using ‘spatial analytics’ not just in choosing a new location but in making sure its design and offerings appeal to its most likely customers. A rebranded Wendy’s targeting urban millenials will look and feel different.

"It’s not the older ‘Wendy’s old-fashioned hamburger’ look that you see, and then on the interior, it’s more technology," Crouse said. "They have free-style soda machines so you know, you don’t just order a Sprite. You can say ‘I want Sprite’ but I want to put a grape flavoring in there."

As 'big data' gets bigger, so does GIS

Jack Dangermond founded Esri in Redlands in 1969.  A Harvard-trained landscape architect, Dangermond was getting into the land-use consulting business and developed a strong client base in government agencies.  Esri now has 350,000 clients and employs 3,000 people.  The privately-held company cleared $1 billion in revenue last year. 

 “There’s a lot of companies out there in little niches for GIS, but there’s really no other company other than Esri out there," said James Fee, who markets geospatial technology for the URS Corporation. "Nobody even close.”  

University of Redlands Business Professor James Pick has attended Esri users conferences for the past 20 years.

"I’ve seen tremendous change and explosive growth in the last 5-10 years, particularly on the business side of the market," said Pick, who also serves on the Southern California Public Radio Board of Trustees.

Professor Pick says the whole industry of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has grown with the amount of data available - and the computing power to process it. He says Esri has been very focused in riding that growth to the top of its market.

"There are other companies like Google that can map surfaces very well around the world, but they don’t have the ability to support decisions based on analytical tools," Pick said. 

Location is 'very personal'

Of course, the ability to map virtually everything raises concerns about individual privacy.  Geography Professor Sarah Elwood teaches with and about G-I-S at the University of Washington, but also studies its impact on society. 

"Almost every aspect of our daily life leaves some kind of digital trace," Elwood says. "It leaves a data record that is held somewhere, in some server, by some entity that we may not know about.  You can join, merge, geo-code aggregate those kinds of records to ask and answer some pretty powerful questions."

"Location is very personal," said Esri’s Simon Thompson, acknowledging the tension in his industry around privacy, but he says GIS can be a tool to preserve it.

"I don’t need to know what the individual bee is doing but I need to know what the colony is doing because it tells me where they’re searching for honey and pollen and why and how they can be productive," Thompson said. "Great thing about GIS: it can solve those two problems – one making big stuff small, and another making personal information anonymous,"

It’s fair to say Esri’s colony keeps growing: 16 people attended its first conference in 1981 on the University of Redlands campus.  Its recent user conference drew a swarm of nearly 17,000 to the San Diego Convention Center.  

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