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At a recent fundraiser for Medair, a U.K.-based aid organization that provides relief to people affected by natural and man-made disasters, data-rich maps did most of the talking.
One worker found himself talking with a French attendee who spoke limited English. The language barrier made it hard to explain why the organization's work was worth supporting. But when the attendee saw a map with data illustrating how much money and other resources went to help refugees from the Syrian crisis who had settled in Lebanon, he got it.
"Data is powerful when presented in a way that's interesting," said Rob Fielding, Medair's technology and innovation officer. "When you show that to a donor, it just makes sense right away. It would be hard to see this in an Excel table."
It's not just aid organizations who see value in location-based intelligence software. In recent years the tools have become simpler to use, which is driving growth in adoption and spurring more businesses to see what location data can do for them.
Old idea gains ground
The idea of mapping data isn't necessarily new. Geographic information systems (GIS) have been around for decades, but they existed within a distinct bubble. They required special training and were rarely used by mainstream companies because they lacked a clear-cut business case and workers needed expertise. But the big data explosion of the last few years led to a profusion of new data types, much of it tagged with a geospatial element. Businesses now wonder how they can utilize this spatial data, and vendors are responding with more accessible tools.
"[Location intelligence] is something that people have always talked about, but when you're faced with traditional GIS, it could be intimidating," said Kenneth Mack, senior technical director at AKRF, an environmental consulting firm based in Willimantic, Conn., that advises municipalities on the effect of new developments.
He said traditional GIS had a high learning curve. The systems were not user-friendly and lacked visual appeal. But today's tools are more modern. AKRF uses Web-based location-based intelligence software from CartoDB to share geographic data throughout the organization and to map traffic data for projects. Mack said the software is built around Java and HTML, which means most programmers can handle development jobs, and the front-end Web interface is a familiar format for less technical users.
For Mack, using a mapping tool to visualize this kind of data is an obvious move.
"In our work, location is such a key portal to all the information that people work with, so rather than searching through a non-visual database, you have the map as the starting point," he said.
Vendors aim for easy-to-use software
A recent review of location-based intelligence software conducted by Forbes Insights found that vendors are increasingly producing tools catered to nontechnical users. Lynda Brendish, who worked on the report, said in an email that using simpler tools pushes location analytics throughout an organization to workers who traditionally had little to do with this field. This results in better decisions at all levels.
The report describes how insurance companies use location intelligence to assess member-specific risk, rather than generalizing by ZIP code or county, and how sales departments use it to target potential customers and ensure workers are distributed optimally.
"What's changed in the technology is that it has become more consumerized and user-friendly," Brendish said.
But the new generation of location intelligence tools is still developing and must clear hurdles. Both Mack and Fielding, as well as other location intelligence users, said it can be difficult to connect location-based intelligence software to traditional business intelligence reporting tools. Users may have to wrestle with pre-built connectors that have limited functionality or build their own.
That being said, the users contacted for this article both said they felt the benefits of location intelligence technology are an easy sell because of how accessible they make data visualizations.
"Most people love maps," Mack said. "I feel like people want to use it if they can. It's an attractive way to visualize information."
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