The Geospatial Edge is Esri Canada’s periodic newsletter for managers and professionals tasked with growing their organizations’ geospatial capabilities. In this issue, Matt Lewin explores the geographic approach: what it is, why it matters and how to use it to create real business value. It’s a data-driven problem-solving method… and so much more.
A bit of background
This past February, I had the distinction of delivering the keynote address at the 2023 NYC Resilient Infrastructure seminar hosted by Crain’s New York Business. It was a packed event with an esteemed panel of presenters from the NYC mayor’s office, the City of Madrid, Rail Baltica and the Indian Water Authority, among others.
The work being done on the front lines of climate change and social equity is truly inspiring, and it’s remarkable to witness how fully the infrastructure sector has adopted data science and AI technologies in the fight.
Building the communities of tomorrow has clearly become less about concrete and rebar and more about analytics and machine learning!
Since I was closing the session, my job was to 1) recap the proceedings and 2) tie them back to the concept of the geographic approach (since that was the seminar's theme). However, while preparing, I concluded there really isn’t a consensual definition of "the geographic approach".
This creates a bit of a problem when you’re trying to summarize under the said theme.
So with a bit of help from ChatGPT and drawing on my own experience and previously published material, I came up with an answer. If PowerPoint is your preferred format, I've posted the presentation on LinkedIn. If prose is more to your taste, read on.
What is the geographic approach?
Ask ChatGPT for a definition, and you get “the geographic approach is a method for analyzing and interpreting information through the lens of geography.” This is a good starting point—short and succinct and focuses on data analysis.
The key term here is “the lens of geography”. That means the geographic approach involves interrogating data for spatial relationships and identifying how different phenomena vary in geographic space.
Basically, you're considering a dataset within its relevant geographic context.
What are its key characteristics?
In my opinion, three characteristics distinguish the geographic approach.
The first, already mentioned, is that it’s focused on spatial relationships—concepts such as position, scale, route, proximity, distribution and correlation.
The second is that it’s a data-driven analytics-based approach. That means the questions we formulate and the answers we derive are based on an underlying dataset. We’re not making philosophical “meaning of life” inquiries using the geographic approach; we’re asking focused, data-driven questions.
These questions typically fall into one of four categories: descriptive (where?), diagnostic (why here?), predictive (where next?) and prescriptive (what now?).
The third characteristic of the geographic approach is that it’s intrinsically holistic. Because location is a common denominator among disparate data layers, we can make connections between phenomena that we otherwise couldn’t.
For example, without knowing the location, how would you accurately connect the socio-economic conditions of a city neighbourhood with the crime rate?
That linkage is reliant on understanding the spatial extent and variation of these conditions and their degree of correlation.
Essentially, the geographic approach is a problem-solving approach that uses data analytics to identify and predict spatial relationships across a range of real-world factors.
Why does it matter?
I like to think that the geographic approach is an acknowledgment that the world is a diverse and interconnected place.
For a business or a community, that means recognizing that everything from the state of physical assets to your customer/resident preferences varies from location to location, and decisions in one area can often affect the other.
To effectively run your business and deliver services, you need to make investments and manage operations in a way that reflects this variation.
If you don’t, you could create a host of unintended consequences. I’ve heard of plenty of examples of transportation planners attempting to alleviate traffic congestion by re-routing bus lines, only to realize later that those decisions unintentionally aggravated socio-economic conditions by re-routing buses away from underprivileged areas.
By taking a geographic approach, you have a much better chance of avoiding the consequences of taking a single-lens world view.
(Side note: check out my recent conversation with Amar Singh of Infrastructure Ontario for an example of why a geographic approach matters. We discuss the province of Ontario’s mandate to accelerate equitable access to broadband internet and the need to manage a wide range of stakeholder interests across the expanse of the network.)
How do I apply it?
One simple method for applying the geographic approach is to build a solution concept using a geospatial solution canvas.
Start by defining the problem. This is probably the most important step. You need to be crystal clear in your articulation of the problem.
If you can describe it concisely, you probably understand it. Often, I’ll circle back many times on the issue before I get it nailed precisely. Don’t skimp on this.
Once you have the problem defined, you systematically work your way through your solution using the canvas.
The first step is to determine the scope of your solution—this adds a degree of focus to your solution in terms of the parts of the problem addressed and the target audience.
From there, develop a set of spatial use cases which defines the types of spatial relationships we’re interested in analyzing. This is the step where we say we’re “applying a geospatial lens to the problem”.
Next, you identify the specific technology and data components underpinning the use cases. That includes everything from data acquisition tools to mapping, visualization and analysis software to sharing and collaboration systems.
Finally, document your solution’s expected outcomes and any key assumptions. To be clear, it’s unlikely any solution you develop will address every aspect of your problem, so be sure to outline the limits of your design.
How do I scale it?
To apply the geographic approach to one problem is one thing, but to apply it to many different problems, over and over again, to the extent that it becomes an ingrained, habitual part of your organization’s decision making mindset, requires a strategy.
However, in relation to scaling the geographic approach, building a geospatial strategy is essential because it involves looking across the entirety of your organization at all the different areas where the geographic approach could be applied and figuring out the right mix of technology and processes and people that will you allow you to deliver your solutions and more importantly sustain and build-on them over the long term.
Through the vehicle of a strategy, you elevate the geographic approach from a one-off problem-solving methodology to a framework for creating real business value.
I’d love to know how you're applying the geographic approach. If you have an interesting story, I’d like to hear about your experiences and possibly feature them in another edition of the Edge. Let me know what’s on your mind or connect with me on LinkedIn.
All the best,
The Geospatial Edge is a periodic newsletter about geospatial strategy and location intelligence by Esri Canada’s director of strategic advisory services, Matt Lewin. This blog post is a copy of the issue that was sent to subscribers in April 2023. If you want to receive The Geospatial Edge right to your inbox along with related messages from Esri Canada, visit our Communication Preference Centre and select “GIS Strategy” as an area of interest.