Maps Reveal Patterns Hidden in Databases -- Part 1

By Lee, Angela | Information Outlook, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Maps Reveal Patterns Hidden in Databases -- Part 1


Lee, Angela, Information Outlook


Any realtor knows the key to success is location, location, location. The average person, however, doesn't always realize the importance of location to his or her success in business, research, or everyday life. Chase Manhattan Bank, for example, discovered a significant business opportunity by mapping their branch office locations in relation to residential areas and employment centers in New York City. Chase Manhattan Bank discovered that many people moved into a particular neighborhood to work, and these people wanted to bank near their work rather than their home. (Harder, Christian. ArcView GIS Means Business. 1997) By mapping data about their customers' banking habits, demographic data, and the location of their branch offices, Chase analysts were able to make sense of a pattern that was not obvious by examining those pieces of information separately.

The technology that makes this type of analysis possible is called a Geographic Information System (GIS). GIS is a combination of hardware, software, data, people, and methods designed to manage geographic information, create maps, and perform geographic analysis. GIS combines databases with tools to create visual displays such as maps and graphs. Basically, GIS is an information management tool for geographic information--information about places.

Many types of information contained in corporate databases include a geographic reference such as a street address or ZIP code. This geographic information often is ignored but can be extremely valuable. Opening a new branch location is an expensive proposition whether your organization is a bank or a library. Considering your customers' locations in relationship to current facilities can help you determine if a new location is needed and where it should be located to meet demand for your services. Knowing that you have 2,000 customers and five locations is one thing. You might assume each location serves 400 customers. In reality, Branch A might serve 600 customers and Branch B 200 because Branch B is not in an accessible location. Understanding the geographic pattern will have significant impacts on your decision making. GIS helps you maximize your existing investment in information by utilizing this component that previously was ignored.

How is GIS used?

GIS is used in government, industry, and education for a variety of purposes. For example, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) uses GIS to manage information about the nation's natural resources. You probably are familiar with the topographic maps produced by the USGS, but that is only one of many products the agency creates using GIS; others include digital orthophotographs (DOQs), digital elevation models (DEMs), and the National Atlas of the United States.

An obvious business application of GIS is real estate, but that is just the beginning. Neighborhood businesses such as hardware stores or fast food restaurants use GIS to analyze the demographics of their service areas and determine which products might be popular with their customers. GIS also is used to help plan efficient routes or delivery and service vehicles. Sears Roebuck & Co., for example, improved the effectiveness of its delivery services by using GIS. Previously, Sears gave customers a four-hour time window for product delivery. Using GIS to plan routes, Sears has reduced the time window to two hours. ("Logistics and Distribution Move Toward 21st Century." ArcNews. Vol. 18, no.2, 1996)

GIS also is pervasive on university campuses as a research tool in disciplines including archaeology, forestry, public health, and urban planning. Because GIS integrates geographic methods into other disciplines, it is used far and wide, not just in geography departments, and encourages multi-disciplinary collaboration.

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Maps Reveal Patterns Hidden in Databases -- Part 1
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