One of the first things you'll learn about mapping is that it is "more than producing an actual map," said S.J. Camarata, a director at ESRI, kicking off his panel session at the annual Techonomy conference held this week in Tucson, Arizona. While maps have been around for thousands of years, the digital kind are a more recent innovation and more of a "communications language, to visually display content and get context. Plus, they are universally recognized by everyone," he said. Think of even the simplest street map: it brings together a variety of information, such as the road network, the location of particular landmark buildings, and the city limits boundaries.
Maps can be extremely useful analysis tools, allowing you to spot corporate trends ahead of other methods and can be a part of a broader data analysis project that can win over your management for new business investments.
"Because everything and everyone is somewhere at any given time, maps become the framework of keeping track of that. What this means is that just by carrying around our smartphones, everyone can become a sensor, and instrument our location and activities," Camarata said.
The panel of mapping experts at Techonomy cited dozens of examples that could appeal to a variety of IT business situations. For example, most of the major retail chains use maps to determine where to locate a new storefront, and when to close an existing one that has lost a lot of business.
[ SLIDESHOW: 6 mapping projects that change the way you see data ]
Take healthcare as an example. While Edward Tufte's inclusion of the cholera map from the 1850s in one of his data visualization books is a classic use case of medical maps, "this hasn't been the focus of much of modern medicine until recently," said John Brownstein, the CEO of Epidemico.com and one of the panelists at the conference. "While geography underlies so much about health risk, there is not much understanding about spatial drivers for disease risk," he said. Brownstein did his doctoral thesis on mapping Lyme disease transmissions, and ended up taking one for the team: he got himself infected trudging through the areas he was trying to map. He is behind the creation of HealthMap, which helped to track the spread of SARS and other infectious diseases.
Brownstein isn't all about diseases though: while at Harvard, he mapped the locations of Harvard faculty members and found that the closer their offices were to each other, the more often they collaborated on research papers. And other uses of maps are more prosaic, such as in predictive analytics, where electric utilities are using maps to track copper wiring thefts and where they are likely to occur. They were able to reduce their losses by 50% as a result of using this analysis.
The panel mentioned several important trends in mapping:
1. Mapping is becoming more real time. The world is changing rapidly, such as what has been happening lately in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. "A map is useless if it is out of date, and it gets out of date quickly after these kinds of disasters," said Camarata.
2. We are getting better and higher definition maps. 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. For example, once mapping specialists didn't care about where abandoned car tires were sitting on the ground by the sides of roads or in otherwise vacant lots. However, in certain parts of the world, these tires collect standing water and are places where insects can breed and carry disease.
Walter Scott was another panelist at the conference and founder and CTO of DigitalGlobe. They operate five satellites used for various things including mapping and analysis and are launching more, including one that is planned for next year that will collect data invisible to the human eye that will operate over 25 different spectral bands to tell what kind of minerals you are looking at.
3. Collect now, analyze later. "We are starting to collect data in advance of knowing what we are going to use it for,” said Scott. "Part of the mapping boon is that we have available tons of geospatial data that can be mined later, when we can find useful patterns." Indeed, this philosophy is the essence of the big data movement.
Where to find mapping jobs
The field is a fruitful one for potential job seekers. ESRI has a helpful jobs portal page, linking to hundreds of jobs in the mapping industry on various mapping-specific jobs sites.
4. Crowds are useful means to collect map data. Projects such as Open Street Maps and others have made it possible for ordinary civilians to go out and collect data for maps. Richard Tyson, another panelist at the conference who works at the UN, has been involved in several such efforts for humanitarian purposes, such as locating water resources (harkening back to the 1850's cholera mapping project mentioned earlier), or how vehicular traffic in Iraq could help spot trends in population shifts. "Mapping platforms are changing access to agencies and how people can get more control with their governments," he said at the conference. Indeed, Tyson worked in Liberia to produce paper maps that were used by the crowds to collaborate and correlate data (such as street crimes) and then turned this information into digital form. "We are entering the age where we can make the invisible visible through maps," he said at the conference.
5. 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. Indeed, several of the panelists spoke about how having multiple measurements and being able to compare and contrast them with existing cloud-based data is a great analytic tool and can give a better overall picture. The General Motors OnStar vehicle help system is cloud-based and used to help locate a stalled or locked car, for example. And, as I wrote in an article on geofencing, security firms are using the technology to block potential network threats and improve customer relations.
6. Maps are helpful indoors, too. Another panelist, Andrew Gold, the CEO of rSpot , spoke about indoor maps specifically. "Maps become the basis of an analytical platform, where you can ask questions about disparate pieces of information and let you produce a collective intelligence and leverage relationships."
The firm Aisle411.com is 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. And Gold is in the process of creating inexpensive portable indoor sensors that can be distributed to building owners and occupants to collect information that could ultimately be used to improve business processes that happen in their buildings, such as changing production lines or environmental factors.
Apart from the retailers, there are other places IT can use maps. For example, do your customers have a particular geographic clustering that 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, can you correlate web traffic with particular locations, perhaps better target your advertising to a particular geographic area. Or you can see if you are selling your gear into countries 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.
"The mapping platforms are becoming ubiquitous," said Camarata. "There is a continuum from simple consumer maps on your smartphone to very powerful enterprise analytic tools to track complex data streams that is now available. What used to be done manually and took a lot of time and effort can be done digitally and can provide more insights and take less time."