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Geographical Information Systems were once viewed as essential but new, simpler software is taking over, says David Reed.

If you are in marketing, you will have heard of geographical information systems (GIS). There are few places on the map where you can hide from GIS vendors’ sales forces. Their goal is to bring the technology – historically the preserve of skilled location analysts – onto the desktop alongside data mining and customer database tools.

“It’s been happening for years,” says Brian Wade, director of the Data Consultancy. His company is one of the largest value-added resellers of MapInfo, the product which has probably been more responsible than any other for the switch in emphasis. Priced under 1,000, it allows the average user to make use of the spatial analysis capabilities which GIS is all about. “We supply it off-the-shelf so users are ready to go in a couple of days,” says Wade.

What that means is that customers can now get the software bundled with data sets. This has always been a bug bear in getting more general users interested, since the map sets often cost more than the software. The Data Consultancy supplies a CD which users load up from, then import whatever internal data sets they want to look at, such as customer information.

For marketers, the improved ease of access is likely to be of interest. Mapping the outcomes of data analyses has become an important part of the decision-making process. Showing how a revised sales territory or modified leaflet distribution schedule will influence sales is made easier if you can point to the information on a map.

Suppliers have recognised that it is up to them to support any increased interest by making their systems more accessible. “Marketers like to look at things, such as the distribution of their customers, sales areas, where profits are coming from, or sales performance,” says Jonathan Ringrose, head of analysis at TDS Insight.

His company has just launched Accumin II, a revised version of its unique business geodemographic profiling system, which is now fully compatible with GIS software. “It started as a standard geodemographic tool used in traditional data analysis. The latest development incorporates GIS tools because our end users wanted those visual benefits,” he says.

To understand why these new systems may prove to be important, it is necessary to understand the gap which they are bridging. Most GIS suppliers are used to selling to high-end users, such as local authorities or phone companies, which use the system to analyse information at high levels of geography – typical queries include: how many houses in a street are passed by a cable and how many more customers could be connected before a new cable is needed.

At Vauxhall Motors, for example, GIS is used to look at dealership distribution to plan new sites and evaluate catchment areas. The marketing department, meanwhile, is analysing data by geography, then putting it onto maps. “I do a lot of geodemographic profiling looking at sales analyses, and to support above- and below-the-line media planning,” says Steven Hanney, Vauxhall direct marketing database manager.

That involves looking at where a car has been sold, who to, and then mapping that by postcode. When planning a direct mail or door-drop campaign, a postcode sector ranking will be drawn up of the areas with the hottest prospects, then shown visually. For media buyers, having information on a map showing the best sales areas makes the data quicker to understand.

To the purist, however, such activities are not proper GIS, they are digital mapping. What defines a true geographical system is the ability to look at data displayed on the map, change the physical parameters shown, such as the area assigned to a sales person, and have the underlying database updated automatically. With digital mapping, the data would have to be re-analysed then remapped.

Experian Goad has recently launched a system which shows the sort of power that GIS can give to client companies, especially in the retail sector. Called Site Quality Indicators (SQIs), it uses the accuracy of Goad’s retail location plans to demonstrate the potential an outlet could have. This can be analysed by the proximity to anchor stores, such as Marks & Spencer, how many minutes it is from a car park, or by a variety of other variables.

“It is getting a lot of interest, but it is not a mainstream product. It is a set of figures people have to use and have to be guided about where to use. You need a research department or a consultant to help,” says Robin Waters, general manager of Experian Goad. “The model can be used to identify existing stores which are performing well or badly and then locations with a similar profile, or to identify why particular store profiles are the way they are.”

The system pulls in a lot of data sets, from the geographical to the customer-specific. From this, models can be built for the particular retailer which reflect the baselines within its own business. But that means users have to have data on their customers already, and they must be able to manipulate it in order to build their own SQIs.

The complexities of GIS have led many clients to turn to external suppliers for help. CACI’s InSite system is one of the best known. But according to managing director

Greg Bradford, use is beginning to shift towards a marketing focus.

“Historically, clients have used it for site location. We are seeing it used more in a direct marketing context. We are inputting client databases, overlaying Acorn and profit- ability, then viewing that using a map,” he says.

While this gives marketers all the power of a conventional GIS analysis, Bradford does not believe they need a fully-blown system in-house. “They are less likely to need a GIS if their main use is to visualise data. They can use it to map an analysis, rather than analyse the map,” he says.

To reflect this, CACI has introduced InSite Direct, which incorporates name and address data from both the Electoral Roll and lifestyle surveys. The company sees this as a growth area. But Bradford also admits that, when running geographical analyses in-house, his experts don’t usually do it using the map. Instead, they reconfigure the data and remap it. Using proper GIS methods is too slow.

There are other reasons why GIS may not be required. For many marketing activities, geography is central. But it needn’t be mapped in order to be powerful. Mark Patron, managing director of Claritas UK, recalls a profiling exercise which his company carried out seven years ago for the Electric Beach chain of tanning salons, which were about to launch.

“We defined its target audience versus area, then selected the best locations. It set up its first shop in Clapham. It had to show that analysis to the bank manager to convince him. The rest is history – it now has 12 stores,” he says. According to the client, the several hundred pounds spent on that profile were the best marketing investment it ever made.

So will fully-functioning GIS become irrelevant, or does it still have something to offer the marketing industry? The Data Consultancy’s Wade believes the future lies with more user-friendly systems that boil the application down into simpler tools. The next major step is the current development of MapInfo.

“MapInfo’s Spatialware will help back end databases,” he says. “At the moment, you could say ‘give me the details of all my customers in a postcode sector’. That is an entry-level use that you might do for direct mail and then map. But now you will be able to ask the back end database a spatial question, such as: ‘find me all my customers within 100 yards of a main road, or railway station’.”

The important feature of this new version is that it retains the standard query language (SQL), which most marketers use to build up queries about their customer database. MapInfo Spatialware is able to link to relational databases such as Informix or Oracle using open database communication (ODBC) language.

They then use their processing power to link what experts call graphical objects, such as roads or stations, and geographical information, such as postcodes. To the user, all that happens is that a query is returned showing the answers on a map. There is no need to learn any complex programming language, or even to understand how it is done.

If there is a way forward for GIS, especiallyw in bridging the gap into marketing departments, then this is certainly it. Systems will become easier to use, arrive fully loaded with data, and will look just like the software that marketers already understand, such as Microsoft Office. The purists might object, but their sales- forces will be delighted.

“GIS in the Eighties oversold itself to a lot of markets where it was not appropriate,” admits Wates. “Some say that GIS will disappear because everything will have a GIS element.

“I don’t think even our retail product will be called GIS as other systems become spatially-enabled. You can already do mapping from an Excel spreadsheet. That will draw more people into the game.”

GIS 97 Exhibition

GIS 97, which is held in association with the AGI Conference, is Europe’s largest GIS event. The show will take place next week on October 7 – 9 at Hall 7, NEC, Birmingham.

More than 100 suppliers will be demonstrating the latest GIS solutions including ESRI, Integraph, Genasys11, Bentley, ICL (UK) and the Ordnance Survey.

Kingston University will be organising interactive workshops which are designed to give visitors an independent insight into the business benefits from GIS.

Free introductory seminars will also take place on the show floor. These are targeted at those who are new to GIS – providing a basic introduction to the technology and its business benefits.

Running parallel with the exhibition is the AGI 97 Conference. The programme runs over three days and has been designed to cater for all levels of GIS expertise. Areas covered during the conference include: Internet GIS, desktop mapping, telecoms and utilities, and retail and marketing.

There will also be an advice centre staffed by independent consultants, who will provide visitors with free advice on the benefits and pitfalls of implementing GIS.

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