In this blog post we discuss business intelligence in relation to Tableau, GIS and mapping technologies. Presented in a Q&A format, we pose 9 questions with answers.
BI Success: Tableau, GIS and Mapping Technology
Question 1: How are businesses using mapping and GIS technology today?
Answer: There are 3 levels:
a) Maps for simple visualization – Basic ‘points on maps’, used to answer questions like: where are our store locations?
b) GIS-Lite – Visualization plus simple analytical tools to help ask questions of the data.
c) GIS – Heavy lifting. Offering the widest range of answers to where question, plus providing complex geo-analytics.
Question 2: Is there a difference between mapping and GIS technology?
Answer: A map is simply an intuitive way to visualize data which has a locational component. In my view what differentiates pure mapping technology and GIS is the analytics, or complexity of where questions which can be answered. As an example Google Maps is a consumer focused mapping platform. It provides nice interactive maps and can answer questions like: “Show me the Mexican restaurants near my current location”, and “What is my best route from A to B, and how long will my journey take”? But how about questions like “What is the demographic make up of the area around my proposed new store location” or “Based on past weather patterns and nearness to large water bodies, where are our highest flood risk areas”? These are more complex questions, requiring most sophisticated solutions like GIS.
Question 3: Who are the main users of GIS technology today?
Answer: Traditional users of GIS have been organizations in the public sector (cities, states etc), and those focused on infrastructure, and assets (transportation, oil and gas etc). Most of those trained in GIS work within these organizations. These GIS professional can be broken down into IT focused (GIS back-end set up, configuration, maintenance), enablers (data preparation, GIS application owners, GIS coordinators) and analysts (often desktop users). Often, particularly in smaller organizations, these tasks are the duties of one person.
Question 4: What is happening outside of these so called traditional sectors?
Answer: There has been an increasing demand for mapping and GIS technology. Much of this has been driven by the emergence of mobile and the growth of big data. There has been greater awareness of the locational component of data. Today large commercial organizations have been looking to add mapping and GIS technology to their tool-sets to better visualize data and answer their business where questions.
Question 5: Current BI platforms like Tableau have built in mapping components. Why might an organization need more than this?
Answer: That is true. Tableau provides ways to map data which has a locational component like address, zip code etc. That is good for simple where questions. But we all know successful businesses have both simple and complex questions in need of answers, as we discuss in question 1. GIS provides the tools to answer all these questions.
Question 6: What do you see as the challenges for organizations using BI platforms like Tableau adding GIS to their business solutions tool-set.
Answer: That is a very good question. Let’s start with who are the potential/current users of mapping technology within organizations. There are 3 main groups:
- Business users – these are users who want quick answers often to simple questions. These folks are moving quickly. They want easy, intuitive web applications which provide all the data and tools they need.
- Business analysts – These are folks who may have lived in Excel, Access, and could be using Tableau if they are savvy enough. They are not a group who will learn more complex technology like GIS.
- BI Professional – These folks are modeling data and/or creating professionally authored content for business units. They could be in IT or embedded in the business as part of de-centralized BI approach. A lot of these BI professionals want to stretch what they have out of the box to it’s limits in lieu of there being GIS available. These are folks who will/are learning GIS.
The biggest single challenge for these organizations is lack of in-house GIS expertise. As we discuss in our answer to question 3, success with GIS requires 3 areas:
- IT folks who understand and can install, configure and maintain a GIS internally.
- Enablers who manage the GIS data, set up web apps and manage all day to day GIS tasks. These are the folks who work closely with business users and business analysts.
- Those with knowledge and skills to answer both simple and complex where questions using GIS. These are BI professionals who have learned GIS (or GIS professionals who understand BI).
Question 7: Do you believe over time GIS will be a stand-alone system or integrated into BI platforms like Tableau?
Answer: Another good question. And a hard one to answer. If I were to generalize, many organizations today are familiar with and comfortable using a single BI platform like Tableau. All the tools they need and data are in one place. Many like the simplicity of ‘three clicks and I’m done’. In a perfect world I believe many would like GIS integrated into an existing BI platform. Organizations like Centigon Solutions with their CMaps Analytics solution have an interesting integrated GIS-Lite offering. But today GIS is a stand-alone system. It is installed, maintained and managed outside of platforms like Tableau. As a result bringing centralised business data into a GIS is potentially problematic. I think the release of Insights for ArcGIS from Esri is interesting.
Question 8: Is Insights for ArcGIS something different?
Answer: Certainly different for Esri. This is their first major foray into the business world. Its an attempt to expand the reach of the ArcGIS platform, by providing a familiar BI dashboard but powered by GIS. So the ability to explore spatial and non-spatial data together. Insights comes built into ArcGIS Enterprise which is installed behind an organizations firewall, and as a cloud managed service (EMCS).
Insights integrates with other data sources. I think Insights has the potential to be successful, but overcoming the challenges discussed in the answer to question 6 will be important. Service providers will be key to the success of Insights.
Question 9: Any last thoughts?
Answer: I think we live in interesting times. GIS has been a niche technology. But there is a growing demand for mapping and GIS technology among traditional BI platform users. These are organizations familiar with maps through Google Maps and the simple map visualizations available in platforms like Tableau. But with mobile and big data, deeper where questions are being asked. Competition in the mapping and GIS space is hotting up. Many targeting this new enormous, untapped market. Questions remain around integrated v stand-alone, product sale with service offering. What I do know is large amounts of time and money are going into both commercial and open source mapping and GIS solutions. Who will emerge as the winners .. nobody yet knows.
Author: Matt Sheehan
Matt Sheehan is a Principal at WebMapSolutions. Matt evangelizes GIS and location intelligence around the world through keynotes, articles, tweets and his books. Follow him on Twitter: