Map making is an ancient art. But as no general would dream of going into battle without decent maps of the terrain, modern-day corporate warriors increasingly need the support that geographical information can supply.
The digitisation of maps enables both spatial and textual information to be combined so that huge amounts of rich information can be made available to those who have to run companies.
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Although geographical information systems (GIS) have been around for a good decade, they have always been regarded as something quite separate from normal corporate IT. GIS was deployed on a special needs basis, by organisations that occupied particular categories. They already had an established requirement for extensive mapping, for which GIS was merely a digital replacement or extension and enhancement of existing physical maps. GIS was the province of sectors such utilities that had to map cables and pipelines - most companies didn't need to consider them.
That is changing. GIS is becoming more mainstream. Even ordinary companies can, and should, exploit it. There are several reasons for this change.
"Any organisation that has assets distributed in space, who needs to do things like inventory management, can use GIS to help them add value to how they manage them," says Robin Turner, director of GIS specialist Intergraph.
"Organisations typically do not manage assets very well because they don't have good knowledge of them."
In the past, that might not have mattered too much. But with tighter corporate control, and the swathe of mergers and acquisitions going through the blue-chip fraternity, the importance of knowing what you've got and where it's located is ever more important.
"A good knowledge of your asset base is increasingly critical," says Turner.
Secondly, the emergence of mobile business, which technologies like wireless application protocol (Wap) are accelerating hugely, is inherently map-related.
Mobile commerce allows the development of location-based services applicable to a wide range of enterprises. You can find out where your delivery lorries are to where the missing member of your project team is. The GIS element just adds the non-spatial information such as who the consignments are for, what the stock value is, and so on.
Thirdly, the cost of GIS is plummeting. A few years ago, GIS was proprietary, which meant not only high costs but lack of integration with other IT systems. This created stand-alone islands of geo-spatial data. In the past three or four years, GIS has been opening up and will run on standard Wintel platforms, housing the data in standard relational databases like Oracle. Instead of taking the text information to the specialist spatial information databases, spatial information can join the existing text information in standard corporate databases.
"Oracle 7 was only just able to hold geographical information, but that's come of age in Oracle 8," says Turner. "Now you can move the GIS islands into the centre."
The Internet is also playing its part in bringing GIS costs down, in terms of deployment to end-users.
"The managing director can see where all his factories are on the intranet with a Web browser," says Turner.
And although geographical data is heavy on storage, the cost of discs is not a consideration. "Disc space is very cheap," says Turner.
A major consideration is the cost of the geographical data itself.
Unless a company undertakes the unlikely task of remapping the UK and digitising the results, digital maps have to be purchased. This was once extremely expensive. Those organisations, such as utilities, which simply have GIS, spend millions of pounds to acquire the underlying geographical data to assist in laying their cable and pipe networks. Text information is finally added on top before they had a usable, useful GIS.
This has now changed completely. Ordnance Survey is looking at a volume, not a value market and has turned its pricing on its head. This makes it much cheaper for 'ordinary' organisations to acquire digital maps. They are not alone.
Digital mapping is a hot business and competition is on the side of the purchasers. The model could work to everyone's benefit, says Turner. The Japanese equivalent of Ordnance Survey gets millions of hits a day from mobile phones containing elementary location positioning facilities in them.
When it comes to buying in the digital maps, "there is now much more coverage and more realistic pricing which is far less inhibiting," says Turner.
Moreover, companies can now buy digital maps in smaller quantities. "You can buy discrete pieces, very small areas instead of kilometre squares," he says.
There is also a boom in geographically related data, such as demographics, which can be bought in and added to GIS. Retailers can better assess the comparative preference for the location of new outlets taking into account anything from the price of housing to the age profile of the locals, as well as information on parking restrictions and access to motorways.
Finally, the Government, in its commitment to openness, has promised to make available huge amounts of previously unaccessible data. A great deal of data has geospatial implications, such as planning applications and development areas.
"About 500 government data sets have spatial information that's of value to business," says Turner.
Now, cost reductions in implementing GIS is such, says Turner, that instead of being, "a very major investment", it should add on not more that 2% or 3% to the IT budget.
GIS has no limits for the corporate imagination.
What's making GIS mainstream?