The Past, Present, and Future of Geospatial Data Use

Exploring the uses of geospatial data in retail, health care, financial services, and transportation/logistics


Over the past quarter century, information in the form of digital data has become the foundation on which governments, industries, and organizations base many of their decisions. In our modern world, there exists a deluge of data that grows exponentially each day. Companies and institutions have come to the awareness that not only must they have access to the right data at the right time, but they must also have access to analysis of the raw data to make correct decisions. The proper collection, analysis, and usability of timely and relevant data can mean the difference between success and failure.

“As organizational decisions increasingly become more data driven, businesses need to assure decisions are made with the most accurate data. That explains why so many organizations have made data collection and analysis a strategic and organizational priority and recognize data as a mission-critical asset to manage.”

– Harvard Business Review

Hence the constant search for new data sources, tools, solutions, and experts. Hence the persistent quest for new ways to use data, find relationships in data, and discover patterns in data. As we reflect on the uses of geospatial data, one of the most significant growth areas in the broader world of data is the area of data visualization. Whether rendering information in two or three dimensions, geospatial data is the key to visualizing data, which is why it has become one of the most sought after forms of data. Geospatial data was traditionally confined to use by the military, intelligence agencies, maritime or aeronautical organizations, etc. Today, the use of geospatial information has expanded into almost every market and institution around the globe, with the discovery that it can provide new levels of insight and information. Geospatial data has become an integral element in how companies and organizations conduct business throughout the world. As we look at how geospatial data is being used in the past and present, it makes us question how the uses of this data will change in the future.

Geospatial Data in Retail

Unbeknownst to most consumers, data drives the world of retail. Google, Amazon, and Walmart have realized the value of geospatial data to achieve growth and digital transformation, and now others are following suit. To tailor products, services, and goods, it is important to know the socioeconomic information of your customers. Specifically, geospatial data can provide retailers data on income, housing/rent prices, surrounding business performance, population, and age. These details determine the brands and the products they carry. For example, a store like Macy’s or JCPenney in an urban location will carry different brands than it would in a suburban or rural community.

Another way retail uses geospatial data is in combination with weather pattern predictions. In areas prone to hurricanes, tornadoes, or extreme winter weather, it is necessary to change items overstocked or on hand. In times of catastrophe, such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, stores like Home Depot typically carry a surplus of generators. In the restaurant industry, Waffle House prepares to provide a limited menu during times of inclement weather. During predicted storms, especially in the South, Waffle House will order the necessary food to operate on a limited menu to provide their customers with breakfast in times of need. Also, weather pattern visualizations allow grocery stores to know when they should stock up on non-perishable items. Although storms are not predictable, the times and trends year after year are, and the ability to forecast at least a few weeks ahead can increase profits and better serve customers in times of need.

In a more traditional brick-and-mortar industry, such as banking or fast food, companies like Subway and Wells Fargo can select future optimal sites and assess the past performance of existing locations. Socioeconomic data as well as information like traffic patterns, foot traffic, and the number of residences in the area can be helpful when choosing a location. Geospatial data can also provide information on competitors in the area and forecast upcoming trends or construction projects that may affect business. For example, it’s important to know if a major, long-term road construction project is planned that may impact traffic patterns and accessibility of the business location.

The use of geospatial data in retail is not a new development. People began using customer data for retail sales forecasting back in post-World War II, however, it wasn’t until the 1990s when our technology improved enough to allow companies to perform “data mining” on their customers and retail stores. Since then, data mining has gone from raw statistics to incorporating other technologies such as artificial intelligence to help log and track activities in certain locations.

The creation of GIS software in particular provided companies with a multitude of information. Through the use of thematic map coloring, companies are able to visualize geographic patterns that may not otherwise be seen in the raw data. By entering the raw data into data tables and then instructing the GIS software to generate the data into a layer on the map (such as placing pins on the map to mark where a company’s best customers lived), it creates a visual that allows retail companies to recognize certain patterns in the population. Different layers of maps can also be added or taken away to provide additional/less information with just a click of the mouse. For example, if a company was viewing a map that showed where the best customers lived but wanted to focus on the average annual income of the population living near the store, they could uncheck the layer showing where the best customers lived and select the average annual income layer instead. These abilities make GIS an invaluable asset for any retail business.

  • This article is part of USGIF’s 2018 State & Future of GEOINT Report. Download the PDF to view the report in its entirety and to read this article with citations. 

Geospatial Data in Health Care

Health geography and the application of geospatial data and techniques continues to expand its influence and use to support more accurate and timely decision-making in the healthcare market. Research continues into the application of social geography and redefining health care from a model of treatment to a model of prevention and wellness.

Geospatial data is essential for both the study of epidemiology and the geography of health care. When we “know the earth,” when we discover patterns and influencing factors, when we understand how a population is influenced by social and cultural norms, only then can we begin to understand the effects on humans and their health needs.

Many diseases are being researched today using geographic techniques. The location of water, IV drug users, environmental hazards, or the nomadic patterns of people can all provide clues and knowledge to determine where the greatest healthcare need could exist in the future. One such example follows.

Geospatial research teams are using commercial data to develop simultaneous sky and ground truth for detecting and tracking nomadic pastoralists in rural areas of Africa. Using algorithms originally developed for defense intelligence, industry has prototyped solutions that can detect and geo-locate new dwellings in the Lake Chad region. Analysis helps develop patterns of life, including health-related information, based on data availability. This information can be provided to workers on the ground in order to provide efficient vaccine and medical care to nomadic populations.

Industry is also applying advanced algorithms to epidemiology to refine the scope and improve the cost-effectiveness of imagery tasking for more sensitive and specific results. For example, geospatial technology is being used to detect and geo-locate waste tire piles in Africa, which are a significant breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitos.

Through discovery of these disease breeding grounds, healthcare teams can determine disease vectors to ultimately provide much needed vaccinations for diseases such as polio, West Nile virus, and malaria. Currently, nomadic tribes and camps are difficult to track, requiring locals and untrained health workers to deliver vaccinations in remote areas based on the seasonal migration of the tribes. Because of the difficulty in pinpointing the tribe locations and the nature of employing sometimes-corrupt locals for delivery, inoculations may end up on the black market and many people could remain unvaccinated. One in five children worldwide are not fully protected with even the most basic vaccines. As a result, an estimated 1.5 million children die each year—one every 20 seconds—from vaccine-preventable diseases. This application of technology provides better tools to track human migration, and to produce trends and reports that can make the vaccination delivery to humans in need more precise and timely. This same technology can be applied to find other structures and bio-forms that function as breeding sites—information that can be provided to survey teams for validation and action.

The use of geospatial data and analysis provides impact and benefits to the healthcare industry daily. Geospatial tools are able to visualize and inform service providers about changes in patterns, environmental impacts, identification of and changes within high-risk areas, and where the greatest need for resources providing the greatest benefit should be deployed.

Geospatial Data in Financial Services

The financial services industry, which traditionally consumes data in the form of dollars, cents, credits, and debts contained within spreadsheets, balance sheets, or financial statements, has discovered value in geospatial data. Consider the world of investment banking, an industry whose success is built by betting on ventures that offer the best return on investment and avoiding ventures that have a high risk of failure. This industry has created a science out of making the right investments based on analysis of all available data. Certainly this includes accounting data, balance sheets, and financial forecasts. However, today many financial services providers are also including geospatial data and analysis in their decision process. By using geospatial data and employing experts in geospatial analysis, companies can access new elements of knowledge, including but not limited to:

  • Visualizing real estate or land holdings tied to a particular investment.
  • Tracking changes to corporate, industry, or regional construction or development over time.
  • Visualizing geographic and demographic data of investments and the regions of the globe they occupy.
  • Analyzing services and infrastructure in a geographic area that may have a positive or negative impact on an investment.
  • Using geospatial data as one more source to avoid inaccurate or false financial information.
  • Analyzing imagery data of current or prospective investments half a world away without the need for travel.

In all of these examples, the benefit is the same. Geospatial data provides a new type of information that promotes a better final decision. Geospatial data provides new information that at a minimum promotes a more informed decision process and, in many cases, a more profitable decision. Additionally, investment risk can be reduced in ways that were unheard of a decade ago.   

Geospatial Data in Logistics/Transportation

Historically, geospatial data has been most commonly associated with transportation through the utilization of maps for navigation and transit. However, we have seen an abundance of new applications become available with digital maps that are changing the way that we understand our world. Would one ever think you could know exactly how much time it would take to get from Point A to Point B using the fastest route? Or, that we would be able to caution other drivers of a disabled car?  

But beyond the common use of applications like Google Maps and Waze, companies and industries are leveraging geospatial data for transportation that provides better solutions.

Today’s economy is focused on how to achieve results cheaper and faster while still maintaining high-quality products. Geospatial data has been a key influence in logistics and routing via roads/highways, railways, ports/maritime, and airports/aviation. Companies have been able to expand their businesses with this data by reducing the complexity of navigating large geographic areas. These operations can include:

  • Using global positioning systems (GPS) for vehicle tracking and dispatch to expedite schedules.
  • Conducting route analysis for better efficiency when transporting goods.
  • Mapping operation/warehouse locations for the proper inventory of goods for transport.

By implementing geospatial data into business decisions, companies can see favorable results. Recent studies show that by using geospatial data, companies can help improve efficiencies and customer satisfaction as well as drive business strategy:

“Research carried out by Vanson Bourne on behalf of Google, shows that mapping technology has had a dramatic impact on the transport and logistics organizations that have embraced it. 67 percent are experiencing better customer engagement, 46 percent have improved productivity and efficiency, and 46 percent have seen reduced costs as a result. Over half (54 percent) of those surveyed say that it has led them to reconsider their organization and/or product strategy.”

Internationally, geospatial data for transportation is in great demand. Data consisting of population densities, land uses, and travel behavior are valuable at the federal, state, and local levels to aid in transportation policy and planning. These data improve decisions made for highway management to ensure better use of limited funding.

During natural disasters, geospatial data plays an important role in risk management regarding transportation routes. Use of geospatial data informs strategic planners of potential routes that could be impacted due to the risks inherent to geography. These data also help identify evacuations routes. Emergency management organizations are able to identify road closures to help them navigate to people in need as quickly as possible.

Lastly, public transportation, fitness, and sport-based applications used for transportation should not be overlooked. There is an abundance of these applications available to the everyday user that helps provide information necessary to make timely decisions to improve schedules and results.

The Future of Geospatial Data

Innovation and cutting-edge research and development (R&D) in the field of geospatial data, geospatial science, and analytics continue to yield new ways to incorporate geospatial data into new arenas and offer solutions to today’s most challenging problems. Companies and academic institutions across the country are investing in developing geospatial technologies that will further extend the use of this valuable data outside traditional markets.

The fields of remote sensing and mobile drone platforms/sensors are expanding rapidly and providing consumer markets new levels of persistent and targeted geospatial data previously available only to the military and intelligence agencies. Geospatial data is a critical element to the operation of drones and small autonomous spacecraft, all of which depend on geospatial data to provide precise positioning. Numerous R&D activities are finding new ways to provide more accurate data to these platforms, thus enhancing their overall performance.

GIS research has also become a critical element in developing artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technologies, providing an important data element to the content libraries and algorithms of these systems. AI innovations offer groundbreaking ways to perform topological data analysis, spatial analysis, change detection, and feature selection.

Geospatial data is also one of the foundational elements of virtual reality (VR) development. There is an increase in the use of geospatial data to inform policy-making. Spatial data related to urban sociology, demography, and statistics are becoming an essential element of many local, state, and federal government decision processes. The aforementioned is merely a sampling of the future of GIS. Other R&D activities that will further broaden the use of geospatial information include but are not limited to:

  • Biosecurity and health informatics.
  • Biostatistics and health risk appraisals.
  • Geospatial patterns of health behaviors and outcomes.
  • Geospatial patterns of disease treatment and outcomes.
  • Urban health, education, crime, and economic development.
  • Computation spatial statistics and social-environmental synthesis.
  • Geospatial urban planning and development.
  • Geospatial civil engineering.
  • GIS for traffic analysis and engineering applications.
  • Environmental and food security on both a regional and global scale.
  • Transport of contaminants in soil and water.
  • Geospatial trends in air pollution.
  • Food and water security.
  • Regional climate response and agricultural forecasting.

Geospatial data use has expanded beyond traditional consumers and is adding value to the retail, transportation, healthcare, and financial markets, to name a few. This expansion indicates that adding geospatial data to any data collection or analysis effort is beneficial. Furthermore, it speaks to the ever-present need to ensure geospatial data and related tradecrafts are properly governed to provide consistency in quality, accuracy, and security.

Posted in: Contributed   Tagged in: 2018 S&FOG Report, Civil, GIS, Remote Sensing

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