Where Is Location Data?

What You Need to Know
By Marc Gill | Published September 6, 2011

Marc Gil summer 2011 image.

Are you an executive trying to make sense of all this location-based information and services buzz? Tired of hearing from vendors that 80% of your business is location-based, and not knowing what exactly that means and where to start? Most location/geospatial providers will approach data from a technical perspective. I’m going to talk about it from a business perspective with the benefit of having used location-based information to manage and solve business problems for more than 20 years.

In addition to relying on my own experience, I spoke with a number of C-level executives from the telecommunications, real estate, oil & gas, recycling, financial services, medical devices and consulting industries on how they are currently using location data. This cross-industry quiz revealed a diverse understanding and application of location information. Let’s start by giving you the same quiz.

Location Data Usage Quiz:

Do you currently address any business issues with location data?

  • YES
  • NO

Do you need location information to address specific business issues?

  • YES
  • NO

Does your business currently use and/or store location data?

For example:

  • Marketing
  • Locating customers
  • Building and maintaining infrastructure
  • Locating businesses
  • Routing
  • Tracking product
  • Managing network
  • YES
  • NO

How are you using location information? Are you aware of the many different ways location information can be leveraged and used?

  • YES
  • NO

Would you use location information if it were available?

  • YES
  • NO

If you answered NO to any of the questions above, then you need to brush up on location intelligence, or risk getting left behind.

If you answered YES to any of the above questions, then you are location aware. Where you are on the scale of location awareness sophistication and on turning that awareness into a business advantage depends on your knowledge and efficient use of location information.

Getting Started: Identifying the Location Data Requirements (This is the stumbling around part.)

This may seem obvious, but you would be amazed at how many people today overlook these basic questions: What business problem are you addressing, and will location information help address the problem you are trying to solve? Location information is almost always “helpful,” but how is it going to improve substantially your ability either to run the business and optimize process improvements, or to develop or enhance distinctive products and services that lead to customer retention and loyalty or to new sales growth?

What kind of location information do you need to solve your business problem or meet your business objective? Location information comes in many forms, and it’s important to know what you are looking for, but in simple terms there are two main categories of location data: geo-referenced data, or, as techies like to call it, unstructured data, which often comes in text form; and visual intelligence from maps, including satellite and aerial imagery.

  1. Geo-referenced Data - This location data can easily be “geocoded” or linked to business information; for example:
    1. Address information
    2. Zip code
    3. Place name (city, state, country) or point of interest
    4. Proximity to place name or address – for example, 20 minutes or 20 miles from Kansas City. (GPS or cell phone triangulation data can be found referenced in text documents, metadata for video, photos and audio files, and from behavior attached with usage of mobile devices such as smartphones, sensors, and mobile workforce management devices.)
  2. Visual Intelligence from Maps and Imagery - Technical terms used in the mapping world can be confusing. Here’s a simple translation:
    1. A raster file, which basically means pixels, or more specifically, pictures made up of pixels that when grouped together define visually based features (satellite and aerial imagery). This data is “raw” data which comes in about a half dozen common formats that need some processing through specialized software to mine the value.
    2. A vector file is made up of lines, splines and points that create a street map. There are about a dozen common formats for vector files.
    3. A digital map raster is the combination of the graphic features from a traditional raster file and textual information that essentially labels certain elements of the image.

Location information will soon underpin almost every business process, and most certainly all business intelligence and operational support systems.

Acquiring the Data (This is the fun part.)

Once you know what type of location data you need, the next questions are, does it exist in my company, and if so where is it? Therein lies the beginning of the search for who uses and manages such location data and what shape it is in. If the location data does exist, what kind is it, is it centralized or fragmented across the organization with multiple points of ownership, and more importantly, is the location data accurate and complete? Depending on how the location data has been used, the next question to ask is whether the data needs to be processed or prepared to enable its integration into the rest of the business.

Where do I get data? Myriad sources offer location information.

  1. Online – free or by subscription
  2. Through 3rd party location data providers
  3. GIS shops that will assemble and update the location information in the proper format with the information required
  4. Company resources that assemble and update the location information in the proper format with the information required

How do I procure it? Remember, most location data has the space-time issue. In other words, will a snapshot of the location data from last week or last year suffice, or do I need current location information that needs continuous updating? Some of the options are:

  1. Free location information (User beware – do you know where it came from and how old it is, and do you have the right to use it the way you need to?)
  2. Snapshot time-sensitive view, typically purchased by size of area or size of database (When was “picture” taken, and how often does it get updated?)
  3. Subscription-based data, still time-sensitive, but updated periodically based on subscription agreement

Integrating the Data (This is the heavy lifting, where it starts to get complicated.)

Now that you know what information you need, where to find it, and how to procure it, the next hurdle is integrating it into your business and day-to-day workflow so that it is not only actionable, but delivers an ROI on all the time and resources invested.

How do I integrate location data into my business? This is the technical part. You will hear words that will make you think you are in a doctor’s conference discussing treatment for your fatal disease. Terms like LIDAR, Orthographic, Aerial, Surveying, Radar, Scale, Projections, Features, Hydraulic, Cartographic, Geologic, Cadastral, Topographic, Thematic, Pictoral, Orthorectified, Oblique, OGC, GML, KML, KMZ, Lat Long, and SAG will quickly have you saying blah, blah, blah, I don’t have time to figure this stuff out! HELP!

The single most important thing to remember at this stage is that somehow your business information needs to have a “hook” that allows the geocoding of your business information. In other words, what is your business information’s link to location information? This is the most critical part of the integration and can be the most costly. Also, the onus is generally on you to figure that out. The technical issues associated with integrating location information that has a geocoding hook into the business can be facilitated 99% of the time, but at a cost. The big question is, does the technical solution support my strategic and business assumptions?

Who can provide you with a roadmap and solution to your business problem? For the most part, today’s enterprise solutions come from specific Geographic Information System (GIS) application development which includes GIS systems providers, GIS systems developers, and GIS consultants. With a myriad of geospatial technology offerings that are web- and mobile-based, many companies offer professional services related to the integration of their specific product.

Some sophisticated companies have created geospatial information officer positions or senior executive positions to address location services. See the article “Where’s the Location Information Officer?” in the Spring 2011 issue for the internal profile required within the organization.

Another source is the Location Forum, a nonprofit industry association that acts as a business lab, which was recently established and is an excellent independent resource, with tools, resources, and a professional peer network for jumpstarting the roadmap process. Location information will soon underpin almost every business process, and most certainly all business intelligence and operational support systems. It’s not quite seamless yet, so understanding the sources of the data, how to create business links to the data, and where to find the right resources for implementing an effective solution are critical. Good luck!