To most consumers, the concept of Websites that include geodemographic data would probably induce a blank stare. Talk about the ability to locate the nearest outlet for a major brand, however, and offer a map of how to get there plus an estimated drivetime, and the idea becomes more concrete. If the ability to profile a location where the user is planning to buy a home is also offered, then things get really interesting.
This is the cutting edge of the application of GIS on Internet sites. For all the complexities of spatialware and the geocoded databases which sit behind them, the driver is the mapping frontend which offers consumers access to geodemographical information sets within strong visuals. Up to now, this type of tool has been the preserve of specialist marketers, but with recent technological developments, it has become feasible to offer it to consumers.
The starting point for these developments is relatively simple applications based on the postcode. By matching a Website user’s postcode against a list of retail outlets, for example, it is possible to tell customers where their nearest shop is and approximately how long it will take them to get there. Products like QuickAdress’s “Nearest on the Web” offer this kind of functionality.
“Any organisation with multiple outlets can now allow Web visitors to look for the nearest branch in a search based on their postcode. The interface is entirely dictated by the desired look of the Website, as it can be embedded in a variety of ways,” says Catherine Meader, marketing manager at QAS. Car manufacturers have included this option in their sites to provide a list of nearest dealerships, for example. All it requires is for the company to have a file of outlets that is fully postcoded.
But this is only the beginning of what could be a dramatic explosion in the use of GIS in the consumer environment. The key to unlocking its potential as a customer service tool is a new generation of software. Nearest-outlet applications simply return a list of addresses, but the real interest lies in providing bespoke mapping answers to Website users’ queries.
“Before, if you wanted to put mapping on a Website, you had to create an infinite number of maps. Now, with an Internet map server tool, you can provide individual maps of certain areas created on the fly,” says Alan Ross, marketing communications manager at ESRI. It is this improvement which has made spatially-enabled Websites a reality.
His company offers two packages to support online mapping. MapObject Internet Map Server (MOIMS) is aimed at developers which want to create custom GIS applications for the Net. ArcView Internet Map Server is an out-of-the-box package which uses Wizards and Java applets to guide clients through the set-up.
An example of MOIMS in action is the Evening Standard’s site, thisislondon.com. Visitors can browse the type of venues they are interested in and produce their own maps showing the location.
Pieter Rieks, director of server technologies at MapInfo, the other major provider of GIS software, says a key reason for such developments is because “it is now possible to read and write back into the spatialware”. His company is about to launch a new version of MapXtreme which is supporting the move of GIS onto the Net.
“So far you have only been able to run these things in the Windows NT market because of the underlying database engine requirements. Our upcoming release allows you to link between a Unix frontend Web server and a mapping engine on an NT server in the background. That allows you to spatially enable the Unix platform, which is the driver in the Web market,” he says.
According to Rieks, every client specification he has seen over the last year has included a requirement to allow Web browsers to link to the GIS. This will significantly boost the functionality of sites. “The unique thing we have with our product line is that it allows you to put an entire mapping engine behind the server. It allows any analysis you do on the database to be queried via the site, with the creation of powerful images,” he says.
But are consumers ready to make full use of such functions? If they can get the answer to a question from a simple query returning a text-based answer, that might be enough. The critical issue is whether the Website is genuinely improving customer service, or simply providing a product for the sake of it.
Ian Liddicoat, micromarketing director at LVB Draft Worldwide, can see some value: “It is useful if the user doesn’t know the precise location, for example, on an estate agent’s site where you are looking for a new home. You may be looking in broad catchment areas.”
In these situations, the user may only know the general location, rather than the postcode. This kind of fuzzy geography cannot be supported by nearest-outlet tools, but is easy for high-level GIS to handle. Halifax Estate Agency has put just this kind of facility onto its Website and in-store kiosks. Prospective customers can search against locations and access maps showing where the available properties are located. The search can be structured by property value, type, size and all the usual requirements.
Some sites are going even further than this, turning Web-based GIS into potential revenue streams. Chris Slater, head of software development at Experian Marketing, says: “We have done a project with a national newspaper which is planning a service that lets users who are looking to buy a house in a certain area pay to get a report on that location.” The site will run the query against the geodemographic and lifestyle data provided by Experian to produce a profile of the dominant consumer types living at a prospective address.
Whether GIS is a valid investment or not depends on whether users have access to frequently updated, centralised information or whether data is updated from more than one site.
Where a franchise chain is run centrally and is provided with reliable information, Slater says a Website with GIS has little to offer. However, if there is a high degree of autonomy and the data is constantly changing, the Internet offers a perfect solution.
Although the newspaper site might generate revenue, most of the money will have been made from the site offline. Experian gets an income from licencing its data, while the newspaper makes money by selling banner ads or classifieds on its site. Increasingly, companies are looking at the investment they have already made in GIS for other ways of leveraging it.
“If you have a high street presence, running GIS requires investment. For big retailers, it is a very large scale investment. Their attitude is to say: ‘now we have a geographically-referenced data-set, how can we turn that to the advantage of our customers?’ They are using something they already have,” says LVB’s Liddicoat.
This is one reason why most of the developments are taking place in the consumer arena, rather than business-to-business. The latter often has less of a geographical requirement within their data sets. But this is not to say business-to-business GIS will not happen. “We are currently looking into different areas where we are building data warehouses that also offer Net access to our clients,” says Lawrence Duru, senior consultant with Equifax Marketing Services.
“We will provide them with a Web-enabled warehouse and on top of that, a suite of frontend tools, including GIS,” he adds. By using MapInfo’s spatialware, clients of the data warehouse do not need to have GIS software installed on their own PC. Instead, a Java applet is sent to them which allows them to run a query against drivetimes, for example.
Duru believes this kind of access will steadily increase, but will be driven by the ease of access rather than specific tools such as GIS. That is not to say that all of the developments around GIS are being driven purely by the Internet. In some respects, GIS can still get a big boost by being applied to new data-sets.
At The Knowledge Store, the database of 80,000-plus independent retailers in the UK can now be analysed using CACI’s InSite software. “It gives us a unique angle – it has enabled us to combine consumer and trade marketing,” says managing director Jeremy Whitaker.
One example of putting GIS into practice was a project done by the company for Heinz, which was launching a new vegetarian baby food. From consumer research and profiling, it knew that ethnic consumers were the strongest target market. By overlaying the consumer profile onto the outlet data held by The Knowledge Store using GIS, Heinz was able to select the 15,000 shops with the strongest target catchment areas.
The idea of consumers creating their own analyses of locations, obtaining profiles of their prospective neighbours, or calculating which store to shop at based on distance and road layouts may seem to require a leap of imagination. But it is already a reality in a number of trials. As with anything on the Internet, once a small group has been exposed to it, it spreads like a virus. Sites which do not provide this kind of function may soon look as out of date as a shop which closes at 5.30pm.