How to find geospatial opportunities hiding in your business

November 5, 2020 Matthew Lewin

If there’s an issue that nags at the geospatial industry, it’s that spatial literacy is still quite low among those outside the geo-professions.

Beyond locating a point of interest or finding the shortest route to somewhere, most people struggle to understand how geography and geospatial technology can be used to solve business problems. And this is a concern.

That’s because geography is so broadly applicable. Virtually any industry or business function can benefit from a better understanding of “where”. But if those without advanced degrees in the geosciences continue to struggle with spatial thinking—then the value of geography and geospatial technology will languish.

So imagine if there were a tool that could help—one that bridges the gap between business and geoscience. A simple, plain-language tool that can help anyone interpret business problems through the lens of geography and drive out innovative opportunities.

In this article, I review such a tool—the geospatial lens—devised to make identifying geospatial opportunities easier and more accessible. The lens is presented below.

To explain how the geospatial lens works, I’ll use an example from a city elections office.

Example: city elections

Electoral management is a critical function of city governments. Few things are more vital to citizen confidence than a well-run election. And few things can damage public relations worse than a bungled election. It’s a top priority for any city. 

Managing city elections is a complex logistical undertaking. It requires careful management of technology, people, facilities and resources. However, if we think about core activities, we can generally group electoral management into a few key functions. These include electoral process management, census management, election day management, redistricting and campaign finance and disclosure management. 

Each function—or business capability—is critical to planning and administering a city election. That said, finding practical opportunities at this level is difficult. That’s because the business needs at this level tend to be too broad and too varied to manifest a real opportunity. We need to drill down a layer or two to focus on more actionable business capabilities. 

For this example, I focus on election day management and the sub-capability of voting place management.

Voting place management refers to the city’s ability to plan and support effective voting place operations. Voting places include assigned public facilities where electors cast their votes, as well as mobile accommodations for electors with disabilities or those otherwise unable to visit an assigned facility.

To identify opportunities, we need to understand the desired business outcomes of voting place management. That way, we can target opportunities that create real business value. Examples of desired business outcomes for voting place management include:

  • Voting place setup tasks are completed and the voting place opens on time
  • Ballots are readily available to electors at all voting locations
  • Electors with disabilities are provided with accessible voting location options
  • Emergency procedures are followed in the event of a voting place incident
  • Voting places close on time and all remaining electors waiting in line are processed

These are essential outcomes for a well-run election. Each must be realized. A misstep on any one of these and the city has problems.

How can spatial thinking help? For that, we turn to the geospatial lens.

The geospatial lens

Before I show you how to apply the geospatial lens, let’s review what it is.

The lens is a compilation of general-purpose use cases that describes how spatial thinking and geospatial technology can be used to support business decision making. It’s derived from six key geospatial analysis concepts and four key business analytics concepts. 

On the geospatial side, the lens consists of the spatial concepts of location, scale, route, distribution, proximity and correlation. These are specific types of analysis unique to geography. Much of geospatial analysis revolves around understanding geographic relationships based on one or more of these concepts. 

On the business side, the lens consists of four key analytics concepts: describe, diagnose, predict and prescribe. These are the general forms of business analytics. The majority of data-driven decision-making falls into one of these four types.

To create the lens, we join the two sides together. It’s a simple process but the results are surprisingly powerful. By merging geospatial analysis with business analytics, we get a rich set of geospatial analysis patterns focused on the core aspects of business decision-making. And because they cover historical analysis and future-trend analysis, they are broadly applicable.

The lens is not meant to be technical. That’s not its function. It’s intended to help people understand how geospatial capabilities can be applied to solve business problems. It allows a person to quickly assess and apply geospatial capabilities to their business without getting bogged down in technical minutiae.

Often, the tendency when prospecting is to focus on familiar ways to solve problems. The lens breaks you out of that habit by presenting analysis patterns that you might have overlooked—particularly those that cross over into the realms of advanced analytics.

Note: I’ve written about finding geospatial opportunities in previous articles. The intention of this approach is not to replace that process, but to evolve and simplify it for a broader audience by introducing the geospatial lens, which abstracts out analysis from the underlying technology. The old way still works great; it just requires more familiarity with specific geospatial technologies.

Uncovering opportunities

Using the geospatial lens is straightforward: work through the use cases and consider how each applies to your business needs. Where one (or more) looks applicable, translate the general form of the use case into a specific case relevant to your business situation.

Let’s return to our voting place management example. Specifically, let’s look at the key business outcomes, in particular, the first outcome associated with voting place openings. Which use cases apply? As it turns out, several of them.

In terms of understanding past issues, we have a few opportunities. We could map and compare where voting place delays have occurred to look for trends. We could identify where clusters of delays have happened to pinpoint broader spatial patterns. And we could examine how external influences like road conditions and facility conditions impact opening a voting place.

Historical analysis of this nature helps with comprehension and understanding. It’s essential for making informed and actionable decisions. If the elections office is going to reduce opening delays, this knowledge is invaluable.

The insights gathered from the historical analysis can also be used for future-trend analysis. This is where we start to see significant value—moving from past-tense analysis to future-state predictions. Here we have a few opportunities. We could develop predictive models to estimate the likelihood of delays at specific voting places. As well, we could design predictive models to suggest alternative sites where delays are less likely.

These are a few examples, but the opportunities are tremendous if you take the time to explore the lens. By working through the use cases systematically, you can reveal some intriguing possibilities. 

Where next?

To this point, I’ve described a specific business scenario and provided an example of using the geospatial lens to identify opportunities. In practice, you would continue this process for each desired business outcome identified.

From there, you would compile the geospatial opportunities into a single opportunity profile. This becomes the overall functional blueprint of your technical solution. In our example, you would have the basis of a voting place management solution—but you don’t have to stop there. You could roll this up a level to consider other aspects of election day management, such as election outreach and election results production. The result would be a solution definition for election day management. It’s up to you how broad you go.

Keep in mind, working through this process won’t tell you what technologies to implement. It’s intended to uncover opportunities, not detailed technical specifications. The value is that it helps you clarify what a geospatial solution will contribute and how it will be used to inform decision making.

Armed with your functional blueprint, you would set out to do a proper solution evaluation. This involves identifying the building blocks of your solution and evaluating fit and feasibility. This could involve exploring off-the-shelf solutions or custom options. There are volumes written on that subject; I won’t dwell on it here.

Ultimately, these opportunities should inform a geospatial strategy. You can certainly prospect for opportunities area-by-area, but the best bang for your buck is if you work broadly across the entirety of your business. Identify opportunities that span the organization and use them as the basis of your strategy. That way, you move beyond the one-off solution focus toward the organizational capability known as location intelligence.

Right now, there are business problems in your organization, ripe for a geospatial solution. The geospatial lens is a simple but powerful tool to help you get started on identifying some truly amazing opportunities to put the power of “where” to work. 

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

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

About the Author

Matthew Lewin

Matthew Lewin is the Director of Management Consulting 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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