Geographical information systems (GIS) have been invaluable tools for the public sector and scientific researchers for many years, writes Mike Steyn, director at Aspire Solutions.

Now businesses too are waking up to the opportunities for using geographical data to solve real-world problems. From logistics and supply chain management to marketing and business intelligence, GIS as a commercial tool has come of age.
Two trends have come together to make this happen: the increasing availability of spatial base data on the one hand, and the advent of cloud computing on the other.
The need for base data – the raw maps on which other information can be located – is what makes GIS different from any other business application. Without it, the software alone is pointless. This base data is time-consuming and very expensive to gather, and until recently there was no way to buy it at a price that made commercial sense for most businesses.
Now, however, new licensing models have made it possible for GIS solution providers to mash up data from multiple base sources, quickly creating new models that meet the particular business needs of each client.
The “quickly” is critical – business can’t afford long lead times before GIS initiatives start to show results. New systems need to deliver value, and they need to do it fast.
The second trend driving commercial GIS is cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS). With cloud computing there are no long implementation projects or complex integrations: What we like to call “GIS as a service” can offer immediate value to the business process owner, without tying up the resources of overburdened IT departments.
What kinds of business problem can GIS solve? In one recent example, a client that needed to deliver to clients around the country came to us with a common problem: A dirty address database was leading to mis-deliveries and delayed deliveries, with all the attendant costs in extra courier fees and unhappy clients.
Now, when sales staff need to schedule a delivery, they call up the GIS application via the web and pinpoint the client’s location on a map. With no need to type in an address, there is no chance of doing it wrong – and the courier company gets precise GPS co-ordinates for a delivery.
This is one example of how GIS can solve an immediate and costly problem – but there are plenty of broader benefits. Linking spatial information with the company’s underlying ERP system can open up a host of new business intelligence opportunities. Which parts of the country have the most profitable clients, or the most costly clients? Are there geographical clusters of clients and what characteristics do they share? Are there geographical patterns in our turnover? Are there parts of the country our competitors are covering better than we are?
Include some value-added layers such as census data and there is a great deal of new information available to planners and marketers. Where should new retail stores go? Which areas are most vulnerable to floods or droughts? What new transport routes are opening up? Which towns are growing? Where are populations shrinking?
GIS goes way beyond maps. It’s about the ability to pull together data from multiple sources and interact with it in real time. Most of us are strongly visual thinkers, and GIS makes the most of this ability: it enables us to spot trends and patterns that would otherwise be buried deep in database tables.