Business Globes 1.0

By Joe Francica

What is it you like about Google Earth, really? Satellite images or the "zooming" factor? I like zooming around the earth because it makes me feel like the world traveler I'd like to be. I like the fact that I can think about the globe in a way that makes Hyderabad seem close to Huntsville. If you were running a global business, wouldn't you want to feel that way, too?

I see this globe thing as the next tool that will enter the sphere of a business executive's corporate information system. While geotagging YouTube videos might be an interesting way to bring the world closer, the average C-level businessperson wants a bit more. The globe is an apt metaphor for running a multinational business, is it not? I'd start with a sales globe, add my virtual supply chain globe, and maybe give my virtual employee globe to the HR department. I'm just not an HR kind of guy. But make no mistake, the globe can be a tool to better visualize business operations, which include offices and assets in multiple locations.

Businesses cry for a 360-degree view of their business. For a time, enterprise resource planning (ERP) was seen as the solution that would create this view. But as companies began to implement ERP systems and then system integrators were taking too long to implement the solution, cost overruns ensued and many company executives became disenchanted. Next, customer relationship management (CRM) arrived on the scene and that seemed easier for an enterprise to swallow because it focused more on sales and marketing. In fact, solutions like seemed very appropriate in a Web 2.0 kind of way because software as a service makes a lot of sense for many budget conscious companies. And now it's business intelligence (BI). What's the hot, bolted-on application to BI? That would be location technology and the ability to look at corporate intelligence from a geographic perspective.

With corporate data rife with geospatial attributes, it makes sense to evaluate business processes from a geographic vantage point. So, again, what is it that you like about "globes" - Google Earth, Virtual Earth, TITAN, ArcGIS Explore, or something "freer" like WorldWind? "Globes" are platforms for executives to better understand business process relationships and quickly retrieve corporate intelligence. The globe metaphor can be used specifically to develop information databases for industries and applications. I believe we will see "globes" that support retailers, banks and real estate, and others, as well as globes for school districts and homeland security. They would be corporate, organizational or regional. Some of the early adopters have produced specialized globes like that for Virtual Alabama, a visualization platform just for emergency management situations in that state. Still other types of globes will be specific to the individual as a means to better manage assets, both financial and social. Globes will be shared as a Web service, similar in concept to the ERDAS TITAN model that allows collaboration, both public and restricted.

While we all use the Google Earth or Microsoft Virtual Earth globes to view points of interest, satellite imagery or 3D models of buildings, they are too static for business. Businesses want not only to see their own data, they also want to ingest data from many sources, not the least of which is "live," real-time information from other Web services. As much as businesses will analyze their existing customer or supply chain information, they will also seek data that reside outside their business ecosystem. They could be weather- or traffic-related or information from sensors and social networks. Eventually, patterns will emerge leading to actionable location intelligence.

Consider the newsroom during the most recent U.S. presidential primaries. Newsman John King became the GIS specialist, drilling down into the most recent county-level polling information. In so doing, he exposed voting patterns that pieced together a geographic perspective for a slice of the American electorate. CNN created a U.S. political "globe." Its electoral information was near real-time, displaying incoming data as polls closed and information was posted and analyzed. The vote count was timely and accurate, and the maps provided details and context. And yet, the coverage exposed a flaw. It lacked the ability to quickly react to a changing geographic phenomenon ï¿1⁄2 weather.

In the case of the Ohio primary, we learned that Barack Obama had filed a lawsuit to keep polling places open during an ice storm which had affected the ability of voters to get to the polls. King zoomed into downtown Cleveland for better context. But all he could show was a static image, probably a two-year-old image of a sunny central business district. The minions of CNN news scrambled to get polling locations on the map and indeed they did but the moment was lost. They needed a real-time feed of weather much like what you can already get on The Weather Channel to see dynamic weather data, and the ability to change the transparency of the map to expose weather patterns. They needed more timely data, perhaps a better Web service; they needed a better "globe."

During the Location Intelligence Conference, Dr. Bill Gail of Microsoft spoke about how his company intends to organize data in a variety of ways. He referred to his paradigm as an "Internet globe" - by his definition, a way to build a more realistic, virtual 3D world. His globe is more often directed toward tourism and travel by creating not just building information models (BIM), but capturing the inside of those buildings using close range photogrammetry. The result will be fantastically accurate virtual rooms of popular tourist attractions which might be impossible for 99% of the world's inhabitants to visit, but somehow are brought directly to them through a new "tourism globe." This is exactly the paradigm I would suggest for businesses as well.

My paradigm of the business globe offers CEOs the same opportunity without burning the jet fuel to reach certain corporate assets. It's not that CEOs won't travel when it's important to do so, but think of the access to contextual information on demand that would be possible with an approach similar to Gail's globe.

Businesses and organizations alike could benefit from a deeper understanding of how the components of their organizations interact. I recently heard a presentation by Terry Canning, vice president and general manager of business services for Rogers Communications, a Toronto-based company serving the needs of telecommunication customers throughout Canada. The telecommunications industry is one that must utilize geospatial information to manage effectively. Canning described how his company had used geographic information in the past and found that it could help build comprehensive and actionable growth strategies for future investments. The company needed, as a foundation, knowledge of every address in Canada in both residential and commercial areas. Previously it had marketed to its customers with a mass-market approach but found that this strategy of acquiring and keeping customers needed to change as the company matured. "Sales growth slows because you run out of customers," said Canning. "[We] advertise like hell and wear you down until you say ï¿1⁄2yes.' As growth slows, you have to shift activity into the customers you have and less on those that you want to acquire. As population ages, you see a change in the demographics." Rogers began to shift its marketing dollars into customer retention and maintenance.

Rogers needed a globe for its telecommunications operations. Today Rogers has a robust GIS solution with a Web-based mapping interface accessed by many more decision makers. The company now exposes the information to a higher level of management through an enterprise GIS with an interface more conducive for a wider view of its business operations.

"As management and an executive, I can actually see things. Mapping really allows us to look into our database. Street level really gives us the intelligence to look into the marketplace," said Canning. Rogers began to ask questions about the data it saw: "How come nobody on that street is buying anything from us?" or "Why don't we have any coverage in central New Brunswick?" The answer to the latter became obvious, because the only thing that is there are trees. Answers to all questions came more quickly.

CNN and Rogers Communications have begun to expose more information to those who need it. John King informed a mass audience; Terry Canning provided a more robust tool for his organization, enabling it to sell more to existing customers. What will others do? Will retailers like Wal-Mart configure a globe to manage logistics, sales and marketing from a common platform? Will retailers access their sensor networks which track radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on palettes and individual products to more effectively deliver snow blowers to Sioux Falls during the next snow squall? Will insurance companies more quickly adjust policies based on predictive traffic models or near-real-time incidents? Will they demand real-time data to underwrite policies? Real-time data is becoming a competitive advantage and the organizations that learn to leverage, ingest and visualize dynamic phenomena will be quicker to market.

Even with the rapid pace of geospatial data availability and the platforms on which to visualize information, we are still in a very nascent stage of globe development. Web services are changing the availability of data and new licensing models will play a part in capturing information and building industry-specific globes. But I'm convinced that globes have the potential to deliver the goods.

How is this different from the past when GIS solutions were initially introduced to executive management? The answer is that the visualization tools available today are better understood from a usability perspective. What parent hasn't been amazed to be "schooled" by their kids on how to use Google Earth? Interaction with the globe is just easier. Visual recognition of patterns leads to more questions, and more questions lead to analysis and understanding. The media is embracing this type of tool and businesses will do so, as well. Globes represent a better visual paradigm that will provide the context for the way in which executives see their corporate world.

Published Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Written by Joe Francica

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