When Don Campbell wanted to measure the exact length of garden hose he needed for his yard, he didn’t count how many steps it took to cover the distance. He didn’t use a piece of string and measure it section by section against a ruler. He didn’t even use his five-meter-long retractable measuring tape. What the chief technology officer of Cognos, an IBM company specializing in business intelligence, did use was the simple point-to-point measuring tool on Google Earth.
With the relatively recent advent of technology such as Google Earth and Google Maps, consumers have (free!) access to incredible geospatial information. Moreover, many of today’s mainstream consumer electronics are equipped with location-based technologies such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) or the global positioning system (GPS). In addition, an individual’s location can be estimated based on cellular triangulation by measuring distance and signal strength between cell towers. “All these things are coinciding,” Campbell says. The disconnect, however, occurs once you step in the office: “I come into the business world and I’m frustrated with the fact that I don’t have the same kind of tools for a business need,” he says.
To address this growing demand, location intelligence solutions provider Pitney Bowes MapInfo, which was acquired by mail and messaging solutions provider Pitney Bowes in March 2007, announced the integration of its Location Intelligence Component (LIC) for the IBM Cognos 8 Business Intelligence platform this past June. Previously, the two vendors supported a partnership that allowed customers to utilize both solutions, but the process was inefficient and cumbersome. End users would have to jump from Cognos, then perform geospatial rendering on MapInfo, then go back to Cognos. “The workflow was severely impacted,” Campbell says. “The connection between the tools wasn’t there.”
After seeing users flip and flop, integration only made sense. “Instead of telling our customers, ‘Here’s the tool, go use it,’ we thought, ‘Why are we telling people to do it themselves? We’re the experts at it,’” says Jon Winslow, director of business development at Pitney Bowes MapInfo. According to Winslow, the integration of geospatial intelligence and BI was inevitable. “Once you can tie your data to some place on Earth, you can really start to understand the context around it,” he says. The LIC provides what Winslow calls a “bidirectional functionality,” enabling users to take a report, put it on a map, select the most relevant items on a map, and filter it through Cognos—seamlessly.
Whereas time-based trend-mapping was the core of BI, with the addition of spatial information, BI is reaching a whole other level, says Henry Morris, senior vice president of worldwide software and services research at analysis firm IDC. “If ZIP Codes were good enough, then you wouldn’t need any of this,” he says. Unfortunately, ZIP Codes—and even the more-precise ZIP+4s—don’t dive deep enough to glean insight at the street level.
Perhaps what’s most exciting about the new technology is that software solutions providers are striving for business-user-friendliness. Before, companies relied on specialists to extract insight when having to work with a location dimension, Morris says, but the LIC is elevating the work out of the basement and onto the desktop. “The value comes in by bringing in the sales and financial information along with the geographic,” he adds. Telecommunications companies, for example, can map out precisely where cable lines should go in order to maximize the number of properties covered.
MassHousing, a provider of affordable housing opportunities in Massachusetts, was so excited about the tool that it jumped on an unofficial release of the integrated solution two years ago. “I wanted to get ahead of the curve,” says Carl Richardson, BI project manager at MassHousing. Even so, that early version of the system required 10 technically trained users, queries took an hour to answer, and it only provided a 10,000-foot view, he says.
With the LIC, Richardson’s been able to expand the product to nearly 30 users with plans to roll it out companywide (at press time, he was waiting for an updated release scheduled for August, which promised enhanced usability). He can put away the map-and-compass technique, and easily drill down to see, for example, how many communities are within a 10-minute walk from the subway station and determine how to better utilize those areas. “It allows us to better respond to information,” he says. Even better? What once took an hour now takes only five minutes.
With the convergence of location-based technology and increased consumer adoption, Campbell says that adding this location dimension is a necessary investment—albeit a major one. But, ultimately, the business value will prove to be immense, he says: “It’s really just a matter of being creative in your application.”
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Finding the ‘Where' with Software
SpatialKey's on-demand solution boasts a geographic information system (GIS) that's both low cost and caters to the business user.