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How the pandemic has made location intelligence a business necessity

Location—in good times, it's an important factor in most business decisions. With COVID-19, it has become essential—and the change is permanent.

The interests and assets of most organizations—especially those with large, global footprints—vary significantly by location. Whether it’s customer spending habits, shipping routes or facility conditions, the factors that impact a company’s fortunes differ in character and complexity from place to place. 

At the best of times, contending with geographic diversity is challenging. Businesses require relevant location information—often at local, regional and international scales—to operate. But under COVID-19, the demand for geographically-relevant information has escalated to a whole new level. 

Just look at the number of retailers, such as Walmart, that are providing daily store closure and opening updates to customers across thousands of locations. This takes a significant amount of coordination to keep up-to-date and accurate. On top of that, they’re required to track outbreak incidents that could occur at any time. 

The lesson is that crises like COVID-19 are inherently regional in nature and impact businesses differently from location to location. This puts location information front and centre in the response. 

Some businesses have adapted well. Subway Restaurants, for instance, shifted to selling food staples like bread and cheese in neighborhoods where grocery store access was limited or where grocers were struggling with supply issues. This provided needed support for the community but also helped Subway buffer against sagging demand due to dine-in service restrictions. This is a great example of a geographically-nuanced response. 

Starbucks responded to COVID-19 by aggressively expanding delivery options across its locations. They recognized early that store closures would lead to a tremendous surge in demand for delivery and pickup orders. This created an influx of invaluable intelligence about which customers in which geographies prefer delivery and pickup options. As a leader in digital and location-based innovation, Starbucks was able to act quickly on this information and strategically reposition several stores to permanently and exclusively focus on pick-up, drive-thru, and curbside delivery.

Organizations are ill-equipped

If all businesses responded to crises with a healthy dose of location intelligence, we’d be much better off. But the sobering truth is—for too many—they don’t. 

As a management consultant, I work at the intersection of location and business strategy. In my experience, crisis response often favors blanket approaches that overlook regional variation. You see this in one work-from-home policy, one return-to-work policy, one customer service policy. This supports consistency and makes it easy to deploy. But when it comes to regionally complex crises like COVID-19, it lacks nuance. 

Why are so many responses lacking in the location department? It’s easy to blame a lack of data but I feel it comes down to something even more basic: a lack of spatial literacy. Not enough people know how to handle spatial datasets and conduct spatial analysis. Outside of a few specialists, most businesses just flat out lack spatial know-how. 

The blame rests, in no small part, on gaps in geography education, particularly amongst management professionals. For much of the past decade, geography has taken a backseat to other disciplines, specifically data visualization and data science. The result has been a rise in data- and analytics-savvy managers but a general under-supply of spatial reasoning abilities. 

Today there are hundreds of data science programs in the US and Canada alone and countless data science courses available online—but few cover spatial analytics in detail. Without geography, the data science discipline churns out professionals ill-equipped to address inherently spatial problems. The result is the underutilization of geography in business analysis and data science that too often neglects the question of “where”—despite geography being a foundational component of data visualization and analysis. As noted in “The Importance of Spatial Thinking Now” written by Kirk Goldsberry and published by Harvard Business Review in 2013: 

“ visualization is an emerging, important discipline, and spatial thinking—geography—is a fundamental skill for good data visualization.”

For more evidence, look at how organizations invest in spatial capabilities. A survey of over 200 managers and executives from Canadian organizations concluded that while over 80% of organizations acknowledge spatial thinking as a critical or very important capability, less than half have adopted capabilities beyond basic map production and data management. More sophisticated, value-providing capabilities such as predictive location analytics and real-time geographic monitoring are the realm of the few. Not coincidentally, it’s these organizations that enjoy the greatest business benefits.

Certainly, there have been major victories for spatial analytics of late. Look no further than the map-based dashboard developed by Johns Hopkins University that shows worldwide COVID-19 cases by country. Almost instantly, it became the de facto source of global case information—with billions of views—due in large part to its intuitive map-based interface and the geographic relevance of its data.

A recent article published by the Data Visualization Society details the Johns Hopkins dashboard and dozens of other outstanding data visualizations produced by various businesses and government agencies—the majority of which feature maps front and centre. But all of this underscores the growing importance of spatial thinking, not its current standing. The opportunity for spatial is tremendous but not fully realized—yet.

Leadership is required

Leaders can’t wait any longer. COVID-19 won’t be the last crisis in our lifetime. Whether it’s another pandemic or a cyberattack, the global and integrated nature of business means that when one part of society suffers, others soon follow. The challenge for organizations is to build a geospatial capability that provides relevant insights to any part of the operation at speed and at scale. It requires thinking holistically about location intelligence.

The simplest way to conceptualize location intelligence is as a cross-product of people, processes and technology. Think of it as a concentric circle comprised of three rings expanding outward. In the centre is spatial literacy (the people), in the middle are tools and data (the technology) and on the outside are organizational enablers (the processes).

Organizations that scale their spatial capabilities focus on literacy and technology, and ingrain spatial in the culture of their business.

  • Spatial literacy. Spatial literacy is the basis of location intelligence. The goal is to ingrain spatial thinking into the cognitive profile of as many employees as possible, especially the management ranks. Basic training in geography is a start. It’s a place to build an understanding of geographic concepts such as density and scale. Spatial analytics is the next step. This is where we infuse spatial reasoning with modern data analytics concepts such as diagnostic and predictive modelling. The goal is to develop professionals that can identify not only where something happened but why it happened where it did.
  • Technology and data. Data is the raw material of the spatial trade. Spatially literate professionals armed with the right tools turn that data into actionable intelligence. The problem is letting technology proliferate to the point of being a burden to manage and maintain. For efficiency purposes, businesses need consistency—both in data and technology. Leaders must focus on implementing data collection practices that make high-quality location data widely accessible to those who need it and provide flexible technology platforms that promote usability on top of a common tool base. 
  • Organizational enablers. Smart people and great technology will go far, but to deliver location intelligence at scale, you need organizational “glue”. These are the processes and behaviors that make a business run smoothly—these include strategy, governance and culture. Attention to these areas elevates “spatial” from the level of individual practitioners to an organizational capability. Leaders must consider all three: a strategy to set the direction, governance to make sure things are on track and a culture that makes spatial thinking a habit.

The key is to learn while you grow. Unfortunately, a crisis like COVID-19 doesn’t allow you to spend months or years developing plans and pilot programs. Companies have to accelerate the pace of learning and the integration of spatial thinking. According to a McKinsey survey, top economic performers have dramatically accelerated the volume and speed at which they reallocate digital talent among business units or functions. This applies to spatial, too, as it is a specific type of digital capability.

Some organizations have already taken this step. The City of Sarasota, for instance, worked through a large backlog of spatial data collection by transitioning work to non-technical staff who were underutilized or idle due to COVID-19. These were people without significant training in specific spatial technologies. With a bit of education, they were up and working. This provided great learning opportunities for people who would otherwise never be exposed to spatial technology. It also kept them busy during the pandemic-induced downturn and saved considerable outsourcing costs. It’s a win for everybody and provides a great example of a simple and effective method of advancing digital and spatial capabilities across an organization.

Without a grasp on geography, businesses will continue to be caught off-guard when a crisis hits, and the world can’t afford that. Organizations will be stuck responding with spatially undifferentiated strategies that will be, at best, hit-and-miss. Yes, businesses can and will continue to function, but it will on the backs of the resiliency and heroics of hardworking people. Let’s give them some help. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that a sudden event can change everything. If businesses are unprepared, the consequences are grim. Location intelligence helps us understand our world and build businesses that are resilient to what comes our way.

Learn how to unlock your geospatial potential. Discover our Location Intelligence 360 assessment.

About the Author

Matthew Lewin is the Director of Strategic Advisory Services for Esri Canada. His efforts are focused on helping management teams optimize and transform their business through GIS and location-based strategies. As a seasoned consultant, Matthew has provided organizations in the public and private sectors with practical strategies that enable GIS as an enterprise business capability. At the intersection of business and technology is where Matthew’s interests lie, and he thrives on helping organizations bridge the gap to achieve their most challenging GIS ambitions.

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