Holy Cow, A Phantom Mall!

By Mike Sawyer and Terry Conley

Mike and Terry's story Let's face it, no matter how sophisticated the GIS system your organization uses, without an understanding of the underlying data components that drive your system, you could be subject to major credibility issues.This was never better exemplified than a situation that occurred to us just a few short years ago.

Mall OutlineIn the course of using a GIS system to determine market potential for a retail entity, we were tasked with identifying sources of retail activity, such as malls, shopping centers, traffic generators, workplace populations, and others.

After combining all the elements and completing a detailed market opportunity analysis, we decided that this magnificent piece of work was ready to be "road tested," i.e.put into the hands of our real estate team so they could begin identifying actual sites to secure for our future expansion.A few weeks after distributing my report, we were asked to accompany a few of our real estate executives for a field review of sites they had selected from my report.We were certainly proud that our hard work was passing the test of the "real world".

During one stretch of our review, however, we were traveling along a state highway and seemed to be getting away from the commercial "action" that we were seeking.After a longer while, it was obvious that we were heading down the proverbial "road to nowhere." Soon, we were wondering why we had gotten so far diverted off the path.But before we could ask, the driver pulled the car over to the shoulder of the road, opened the door, got completely out of the vehicle and walked over to the guardrail.From there, he just stared out across the vast plain of cow pasture that laid before him.

We could resist no longer."What the heck are you doing...where are we?", we asked.

He had a huge, almost mischievous grin on his face."I took us to this location on purpose," he replied."Since your study indicated that there was a 1.5 million square foot mall sitting over in this cow pasture, I decided to ride out here to check it out!" His buddy, still in the car with us, could not stop laughing.The cows seemed to ignore us altogether.

Needless to say, once we got back to my office, calling the data vendor regarding that Mall's location (or lack thereof) was our number one priority.After all, reputation and credibility of the entire GIS enterprise in our organization was at stake here.

Of course, the vendor had a response, although it was not one that would help our situation much.They indicated that their data included existing AND planned centers.We wanted to ask why a mall in area like that would already be planned and listed in their data.We guessed if the mall was comprised solely of retailers of leather products, at least they would have a bountiful source of raw materials close by.

After explaining the situation to the vendor, we recommended that they flag existing and planned locations so that GIS systems could distinguish between the two.A simple solution to a real problem.

As we reflected back on that experience, we realized that perhaps the exercise was not all in vain.We learned a valuable lesson of the importance of understanding as much as possible about the data elements fueling a GIS system: the source, the file variables, the updating process, the verification process, etc.The data vendor learned that they need to pay closer attention to how their information is to be used and to plan for all the various applications and scenarios.The real estate guys learned that, lucky for them, field work is still an irreplaceable aspect in retail site selection.And the cows learned that they need not be concerned with massive commercial development robbing them of their food source.

At least not for now.

Published Wednesday, November 16th, 2005

Written by Mike Sawyer and Terry Conley

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