Geospatial data is all around us. Weather reports, suggested routes on Google Maps, geotagged tweets, store locations, and airline routes are an integral part of our daily lives and can be considered geospatial data. Geospatial data is also highly influential in today’s business market, and businesses that incorporate geospatial data into their analysis, reporting, and forecasting have the potential to outpace competitors through smarter use of their data.
What is geospatial data?
Stated simply, geospatial data is any data with a spatial identifier referring to a position on the earth: a house, building, road, lake, mountain, or countless others. From a business intelligence perspective, company data streams with information such as customer address records, call center locations, utility lines, sales territories, and emergency room locations are all considered geographic data. The spatial reference component of most geographic data across domains is geographic coordinates, latitude and longitude. Businesses may not capture latitude and longitude attributes, however, and as a result may not realize the extent to which their data is geographic.
There is a good solution for any data with mailing addresses. Geocoding is the process by which a mailing address can be converted into geographic coordinates. For example, our office at 222 W. Adams St. Chicago, IL, 60606, can be converted into latitude/longitude components: 41.879369, -87.634702. Geocoding’s importance is recognized by Microsoft SQL Server’s support of geospatial data in its databases and geocoding APIs such as Google Maps Geocoding API or Bing Maps REST Services. Geocoding is therefore a method that can be easily implemented into existing business intelligence workflows and can equip businesses with the proper data to conduct further geographic visualizations and analyses.
How can geospatial data be leveraged?
Geographic visualization methods
Geographic visualization is similar to non-spatial visualization in that attributes are filtered, queried, and combined to demonstrate meaningful trends in the data; however, the visualization pane for geospatial data is a map and data are organized according to their locations in geographic space. Geographic data visualization is a clear and proven method for many businesses where users would like to explore simple trends and the distribution of their data. Visualizing spatial data on maps provides opportunities for data exploration, planning, forecasting, and understanding broad spatial relationships. The following examples would be suited well for geographic visualization:
- Displaying various point sizes at retail store locations based on quarterly sales to determine where new stores could be opened or which stores to close
- Analyzing the ZIP codes of policy holders to evaluate risk exposure in areas prone to hazards, natural disasters, or terrorist activity
- Overlaying pharmaceutical sales regions and number of specialty physicians able to prescribe a drug to determine if geographic sales territories need to be rezoned
Spatial analytic methods
While geographic visualization is a clear and powerful method for exploring data, many businesses may also benefit from spatial analytic techniques, in which geospatial and statistical analytic capabilities are applied to spatial data. Spatial analysis through a geographic information system (GIS) can be used to determine optimal site locations, detect clusters or patterns of events, make predictions, and understand how events are related to the places around them. The following examples demonstrate how spatial analysis can add an additional dimension:
- Targeting prospective customers within a 20 mile radius of a new store location for site suitability analysis
- Determining spatial patterns of hospital readmissions among census tracts in a city to determine where new primary care clinics should be built
- Determining potential spatial clusters of over-charging utility meters in a given area to further identify a utility infrastructure problem
The importance of geospatial data in today’s business market is punctuated by the overall importance of the geospatial industry, which according to Geospatial World on p. 18 of its December 2013 magazine, was valued at over $270 billion in December 2013. Not only is the volume of geospatial data growing in our world, but also the variety—new data streams continue to grow, including through social media, smart phones, satellites, wearables, and cars/transport. Companies choosing to harness the power of various forms of spatial data have the potential to outpace competitors by tapping into new methodologies to analyze existing data. Geographic visualization and spatial analysis in the business intelligence context leads to improved decision making, better results, new revenue opportunities, and overall a better view of the company’s data.