The Many Flavors and Toppings of Location Intelligence: How Do You Make a Sundae? Part I

By Doug Kolom

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A wise colleague once told me, “Selecting a geospatial technology solution is like going to the ice cream parlor. You have all sorts of flavors, toppings and a million different sizes … the goal is to make a great sundae from all of these choices.”

This advice has stuck with me through the years and today it is more relevant than ever. Given the current market of Web services, numerous geographic data content providers, server side engines, low cost thin-client applications and CD-based products, the choices can become nearly overwhelming. Not to mention the new 'mash-up' concept that enables data to be draped over a map-based Web service. (Wait, they even have mash-ups at the ice cream shop now - this analogy really has aged well!)

The sometimes confusing composition of the geospatial marketplace is particularly apparent when dealing with those newly acquainted with the technology, and newcomers are more common than ever as the value of location intelligence becomes more compelling to the business world. When presenting possible solutions to those new to the technology, an extensive education period is almost always required.

But as the number of software and content offerings proliferates, it is not just the newbies who require advice - even veterans must grapple with the multitude of technologies available. In fact, (and I won't name names!) the sales forces of leading vendors seem to be experiencing some sort of disorientation with the number of products their companies offer and the niches they fill. Too often, conflicting advice is given by different professionals within the same company.

The potential for confusion seems particularly great with commercial clients, who are more frequently new to GIS and its possibilities. While the public sector faces some of the same challenges in selecting from the complex array of vendors, software products and data offerings, it is often a less daunting undertaking since GIS is more entrenched within government; dedicated staff are available for planning and managing GIS. But more and more, commercial organizations are tasking their corporate IT departments with procuring and managing spatial technology. The challenge for these professionals is to effectively select the optimum technology mix given the large selection of possible solutions.

Even if an organization has already selected a preferred vendor, the product lines within many companies can be exceedingly confusing. There is functional overlap between individual applications and in some cases, product names that seem to have been conceived for confusion. Think of Paul P. Procurement when he asks, “How do we show our customers on a map?” and the confusion that ensues when he discovers the 1,001 possibilities for accomplishing this. Of course, we can't blame software companies for wanting to add features or diversify their product lines. This is Marketing 101 -- witness the birth of purple ketchup or take a quick look at the toothbrush aisle. Still, I can think of no other domain within IT that requires such expertise to properly grasp the wide assortment of tools and products.

The diversification of GIS technology has become more rapid in recent years. While GIS was formerly limited to desktop and workstation products, organizations are now faced with an array of server-based, service-oriented, client, and mobile GIS product offerings. Add to this mix the complexities of acquiring GIS data. Newcomers often express dismay that map data is not part of a package they buy. This situation has improved with a la carte Web services and software packages that include 'canned' datasets.

Yet potential customers should be cognizant of many critical questions when determining a data solution. Is there a need for custom data? Will free sources of data be accurate or sufficiently attributed? Can 'flat' files be used or should spatial geometry be stored in a relational database? Could Web services be leveraged for savings and maintenance benefits? How is pricing affected when a proprietary data set is deployed over the Web? When beginning a GIS implementation, organizations are typically faced with a myriad of questions such as these, and the answers are seldom evident.

While decision-makers would be well served by obtaining a certain level of expertise, the complexities therein should not discourage prospects from investigating spatial solutions. The value of spatial technology can be well worth the time invested in making the right decisions. Rising fuel costs, homeland security concerns and emergency preparedness demand improved location intelligence processes. Site selection, facilities management and delivery routing services are among the applications that increase efficiency. Location intelligence can be strategic for businesses as well. A wide range of data including sales figures, customer profiles, competitor information, demographic profiles, and targeted mailing lists can help a business gain a competitive advantage. Location is also being used as a premium in industries facing commoditization. Wireless carriers and car manufacturers have long understood that consumers will respond to location-based features.

The value of location intelligence is clear, so how do businesses go about planning a location intelligent solution? What are the key considerations? A number of factors (true of any technology) are of concern, such as cost, maintenance requirements, and the need for training. There are, however, issues which have a particular relevance to GIS. Among the first choices to consider are selection of the right mix of commercial off-the-shelf products vs. custom-built solutions, staffing resources, cost/licensing optimization, and the availability of a suitable technology infrastructure.

So, how do organizations make a sundae out of location intelligence and all of its possibilities? What can organizations that see location intelligence as mission critical or value-adding do to ensure that they are making prudent investments? Tactics favored by conventional IT projects such as proofs-of concept, phased deployments, and standards adherence can minimize the potential for risks. But another approach has gained credibility as the complexity of available technology increases; the establishment of a 'trusted advisor' who maintains a cross-vendor and progressive perspective on the industry. This advisor assists with the establishment of a vision, assists with key purchase decisions, reduces research and development costs, and helps pursue a coordinated and cost-effective location intelligence investment strategy.

The notion of a trusted advisor to help navigate the maze of location intelligence technologies is not dissimilar to the ideas presented by Hal Reid in The Missing Department, where he suggests the need for an intelligence office within corporations. We have already seen this with the creation of the Geographic Information Officer (GIO), but organizations with smaller efforts or focused systems do not merit creating a dedicated internal position. Here, in these most common situations, it makes sense to outsource this advisory role to a professional, unbiased by an agenda to sell software or a binding relationship to a particular vendor. This does not necessarily mean a full-blown needs assessment is required for every implementation (although in some situations, scope and complexity merit a contracted research effort), but rather an expert who can be called upon to provide direction and guidance as issues and questions arise.

In part II of this article, which will appear on June 7, I will expand on some of the factors a competent advisor would explore when making recommendations on location intelligence and demonstrate this through a scenario frequently encountered within the commercial sector: Should an organization 'self-host' their data or subscribe to a Web service for geospatial content?

Decisions on location intelligence technology will continue to present challenges and require careful planning, but with the right expertise, organizations can end up with a sundae rather than a mixed up hodge-podge that yields more headaches than return on investment. But for the record, in the ice cream world those mixed-up messes can be pretty tasty.

Published Wednesday, May 24th, 2006

Written by Doug Kolom

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