While maps have been around for thousands of years, the digital kind is a more recent innovation and more of a communications language that can be used to visually display content and get context. Plus, they are universally recognized by everyone, or at least used to be back before we all started using GPS’s in our vehicles to navigate around city streets.
When you think about a street map, you intuitively recognize what it has encoded. For example, the distance to a nearest point of interest, exits on the freeway, the city boundaries, or water crossings like bridges and tunnels.
Think about this for a moment as you take a look at a table with three columns of numbers. The first column is the latitude, the second the longitude, and the third is some actual data relating to what happened at that location. Can you spot the trend from this table? Probably not. Now let’s plot those locations on a map, and the trend becomes immediately obvious. That is the value of a map.
But the digital maps – or more specifically data maps — are even more instructive. These maps can be extremely useful analysis tools, allowing you to spot corporate and client trends ahead of other methods. Take a look at this map, which tracks the road trips of the more popular American novels such as A Walk Across America and Travels With Charley. Visitors to that website can interact with the map in ways that they couldn’t do easily with a simple paper map. Even if you have never read any of these classics, the map shows you where each author has been and how their trips intersected.
But maps aren’t just about having fun with great literature. Data maps can also be a part of a broader data analysis project that can win over your management for new business investments, or when you need to support a proposal for additional resources for servicing your clients. And data maps are also linked very closely to Big Data, a topic that I will be speaking about at the January 2016 PesTech 3.0 San Jose conference.
Maps are a natural fit for many Big Data applications, and there are now many different business analysis and visualization tools that can be used to display your data on a map to help with your decision-making. These tools include Tableau Software, Qlik.com and Microsoft’s PowerBI. While these tools are costly, they can end up saving your business several times what you end up paying for them.
Many businesses have created specialized data dashboards using these tools. A dashboard, which can contain summary data maps, can be a great starting point for conversations about process management or customer service, for example. These dashboards can spot trends, help communicate a particular business situation, such as financial status, sales figures to management, or call out trouble spots while something can still be done about it. For example, the Texas Rangers baseball team saved about $45,000 in annual costs from one of their contracts as a result of using a visualization from their Tableau data.
Here are some important mapping trends:
First, mapping is happening in real time, for quick feedback to make on-the-spot decisions about demand, customer satisfaction, and the like. Companies can plot where tweets or social media posts originate and determine if a there is a particular “hot spot” or problem area that needs to be addressed, such as a driver missing a series of stops or a bad delivery of products. The Texas Rangers IT team uses the real-time ticket sales data frequently to adjust ticket prices on slower-selling games or to purchase more TV and radio spots to promote them.
Businesses are collecting a lot more data, even if they can’t immediately use it. As the cost for digital storage continues to drop, it makes sense to just become a packrat and store as much data as possible to examine later when technology improves or when you have budget to purchase some better analytical tools. Maps can also be a way to see if your organization is collecting the right kinds of information, or how to adjust a program to be more insightful or focused.
Maps are getting more useful as they encode higher resolutions. The experts call this being able to “eliminate the outdoor white space,” which is the space between roads and buildings that used to be blank on maps. Today’s GPS software is much better at this than what was available just a few years’ ago, as an example.
The cloud is changing mapping and making it more sophisticated. As more cloud-based data is available, it can be used to create more sophisticated maps that can be used for a variety of business decisions. This is because through the cloud almost anyone can rent powerful computers to process map data for just a few dollars at a time. These computers used to cost thousands or millions of dollars and could only be purchased.
The cloud is also enabling a lot of new kinds of mapping applications. The General Motors OnStar vehicle help system is cloud-based and is used to help locate a stalled or locked vehicle, for example. Another place that makes extensive use of the cloud is the firm Aisle411.com. You bring up the app on your smartphone and it shows you the store layout down to the aisle and shelf. They are working with major retailers to produce custom indoor maps to make it easier for shoppers to track down that odd piece of hardware at Lowe’s or find the half-price jar of olives at the local supermarket.
Network security firms are using what is called geofencing features on their firewalls to ensure that potential hackers are blocked just because their computer shows they are originating from a known bad network. It can also be used to identify your potential threats or particular network traffic patterns that would otherwise be lost in a sea of terse log entries. Credit card companies use geofencing all the time for fraud protection. In this case, they determine if you have just made two purchases in different parts of the globe: obviously you couldn’t be in two places that far apart without one of them having your account number.
Maps can also be used to find customers with a particular geographic clustering. This could reveal either trouble areas or places where someone has a lot of referrals, perhaps where a business should concentrate more support efforts. Another example, you can correlate Web traffic with particular locations, perhaps better target your advertising to a particular geographic area. Applebee’s and Outback Steakhouse restaurant chains are doing exactly this to track their social media campaigns and have seen an increase in customers.
Or you can use maps to quickly see if you are selling your products or services into places where you don’t have resellers yet and either a) want to eliminate these grey markets or b) concentrate and try to find a VAR for that geography to improve your market position.
There are some downsides to maps, because they also can be used to stretch the truth. A popular blog post earlier this year showed a map locating the original Native American tribal lands. The only trouble was the map was completely a fabrication. That didn’t stop it from being retweeted and shared many times across social media. So be careful how you aggregate your data, but certainly there are lots of positive uses for maps.
David Strom is a noted author and keynote speaker on a number of business technology topics and writes frequently for IT trade magazines. His blog can be found at strominator.com and on Twitter @dstrom. He lives in St. Louis and will be one of the featured speakers at our PesTech 3.0 program in January.