This content is part of the Essential Guide: Change agents: Leaders in information management technology

Location analytics helps shipping company map out business route

GIS data analyst Andy Cain always knew location analytics could help develop deep business insights. Now he has the opportunity to show how as part of an initiative at Con-way Freight.

Not long after earning a bachelor's degree in geography, Andy Cain went to work for an environmental consulting firm that analyzed ground water for contamination. Starting in the early 2000s, Cain's job involved going out to study sites and pulling up water samples. He would put together reports and send the data back to the home office -- where, as far as he could tell, it never saw the light of day again.

"I didn't like the job," Cain said, speaking at the 2015 TDWI Executive Summit in Las Vegas. "Pulling up dirty water gets old. But also, it kept hitting in my mind that we weren't using enough of the data."

Today, Cain has a job that allows him to use that kind of geospatial data to make a more significant impact on business processes, through a location analytics initiative built around a combination of business intelligence and geographic information system (GIS) technology. Cain works as the senior GIS analyst at Con-way Freight, a shipping and delivery company based in Ann Arbor, Mich. He landed at Con-way a little over three years ago after completing a master's degree in geographic information systems; his position there gives him the opportunity to put his blend of geographic and data analysis skills to use every day.

When you start overlaying data and finding patterns and trends, that's where it really gets awesome.
Andy Cainsenior GIS analyst, Con-way Freight

Geospatial analysis tools have long been used in the public sector, mainly for municipal planning and resource development. But in the past, the tools often required extensive training and expertise, which made it hard for many businesses to see value in deploying them. Now, software that is easier to use has become available, and a growing number of companies -- particularly those with an obvious geospatial element to their operations -- are adopting the tools to support location-based analytics.

Putting location data on the map

At Con-way Freight, everything the company does has a spatial side to it. Cain said mapping out the data -- including operational information that the subsidiary of Con-way Inc. was already collecting through telemetry systems on delivery trucks, plus a mix of other internal and external data -- has helped in a number of areas. For example, Cain and his team can create maps that layer historical traffic patterns for a particular region along with weather data to help develop more accurate delivery-time estimates and plan for major weather events.

By mapping the locations of prospective customers, the team can also give sales managers a better idea of whether there is untapped business potential in a region and aid them in apportioning sales resources more appropriately, Cain said. In addition, they've been able to optimize delivery routes by making sure that drivers waste as little gas and time as possible while making their deliveries.

"There's a lot of data out there, and if we can figure out how to store it and collect it, we can do some pretty interesting things," Cain said. "When you start overlaying data and finding patterns and trends, that's where it really gets awesome."

Con-way's GIS architecture is mainly built around software from Esri, one of the biggest GIS technology vendors. The Esri software pulls the sales and delivery data it needs out of a MicroStrategy-based business intelligence and reporting system, which is maintained by Con-way's data warehousing team. That setup has done the job up to this point while Cain has been working to make location analytics an integral part of the company's operations. But he said that he doesn't expect it to continuously handle the workload, as internal demand for his data visualizations and reports continues to increase.

Too much of a manual process

The problem, as Cain described it, is that the connector MicroStrategy offers to Esri software was built as a bit of an afterthought and is clunky as a result. Data must be manually pulled from the MicroStrategy system into the Esri software, making it impossible to build automated reports combining the BI and geospatial data. As a result, all of the GIS reports are static and can quickly become outdated, Cain said, pointing to that as one of the main challenges he faces. He's currently working to find a smoother solution so the reports will be easier to produce -- a must in order to make analysis of geospatial data a bigger part of the decision-making process. "Our goal is to have location analytics be no different than running a MicroStrategy report," he said.

Another problem, of sorts: Despite the static nature of the reports, location analytics at Con-way has been a little too successful. Cain said business analysts quickly saw how useful the GIS maps could be and started asking him to create even more. Now the company is looking at expanding his team to handle the increasing demand.

For Cain, that is a validation of the concept behind mapping out data and demonstrates that geospatial information can play an important role in business decision making.

"This is a way to get a story out there and drive decisions in a way that's easy to understand," he said. "Now instead of [business workers] listening to you and having to trust you, they're right there with you, and I find that to be an important distinction."

Ed Burns is site editor of SearchBusinessAnalytics. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @EdBurnsTT.

Next Steps

See how location analytics is helping business hit their targets

Learn about using location intelligence for resource planning

Location analytics demands a smart strategy

Dig Deeper on Business intelligence case studies