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Business intelligence vendors, users embrace location-based analysis

Location-based intelligence, which lets users analyze demographic and other map-based data, is catching on with business intelligence vendors thanks to customer demand.

For MassHousing, location is everything.

The bank was created by the state of Massachusetts to provide loans for the development of affordable housing. Last year it dispensed $720 million in loans. The Boston-based agency uses location-based intelligence technology from Pitney Bowes MapInfo in conjunction with Cognos Inc.'s business intelligence (BI) software to evaluate potential development locations. The technology allows MassHousing to analyze a location's demographics as well as its proximity to public transportation, retail stores, banks and other important resources for residents. MassHousing uses that data to help determine whether or not to grant the loan.

Cognos, based in Ottawa, and MapInfo, which was acquired by Stamford, Conn.-based Pitney Bowes in April 2007, have worked together for years, letting users load BI data into mapping technology to identify local and regional trends. But the two recently deepened their partnership, announcing last week that MapInfo's Location Intelligence Component is now available embedded within Cognos 8, the IBM-owned vendor's main BI platform.

The new arrangement means that complicated coding is no longer needed to load data from Cognos 8 into MapInfo's location-based intelligence software, the companies say, making it simple enough for casual users to perform geographic queries and analysis. Resulting data can also be shared both ways -- from Cognos 8 to MapInfo and back -- a capability previously lacking.

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Cognos is one of several BI vendors, including Business Objects S.A. and Information Builders Inc., which have incorporated location-based intelligence technology into their core BI platforms, a trend driven largely by customer demand. As more people become comfortable with -- and indeed depend on -- consumer technologies like Google Maps to plan their personal lives, they increasingly expect the same capabilities in their professional lives.

"I think Google has done a lot on the consumer side of things in getting people comfortable with the fact that the location information, maps and geospatial information [are] part of their lives now," said Don Campbell, Cognos's CTO. "It's part of the consumerization of IT."

David Sonnen, an analyst who covers spatial technologies for Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, agrees that the growing popularity of consumer mapping technologies is forcing BI and other software vendors to take location-based intelligence seriously. He expects more BI vendors to beef up their location-based analysis capabilities in the coming years, either with open source software or through partnerships with location intelligence specialists like MapInfo and Redlands, Calif.-based ESRI Inc.

"There are a lot of related efforts in information technology to make content more relevant to individuals, and a lot of that depends on where you are," Sonnen said. "There are very specific local issues, very specific local conditions, and including that in analysis of business information just makes sense."

Location intelligence more than just a map

Not everyone is impressed with location-based intelligence. Boris Evelson, an analyst who covers the BI market for Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, said that although there are some demonstrated use cases for location intelligence, it is essentially "just another feature" that BI vendors use to wow customers.

"These types of bells and whistles – and indeed they're nothing but bells and whistles – I'm not a big fan of BI companies going down this direction," Evelson said of location intelligence. "It's a great marketing tool. It's an easy feature to add."

Jon Winslow, MapInfo's director of business development, disagrees. He argues that his company's location-based intelligence technology adds valuable insight to traditional BI analysis. And it's not "as easy as snapping your fingers" to create the technology, he said.

MapInfo, for example, collects data from a number of public and private sources, including the U.S. Postal Service for zip code data, the U.S. Census Bureau for population and demographic data, and credit agencies for financial data. The data is cleansed and aggregated, then loaded into mapping software.

Customers choose the maps and data sets most relevant to their business, which are then embedded in Cognos 8 and integrated with internal data for analysis. Users can add or remove data sources without any complex coding, Winslow said, and "once you've got all that data layered on top of each other" it can be applied back to BI reports and other enterprise applications for further non-map-based analysis.

A retailer, for example, could map sales data to pinpoint the highest revenue-generating areas and analyze the demographics of those areas to improve promotional and marketing efforts. The demographic data can also be loaded into a data warehouse for more conventional analysis.

More sophisticated than map-based mashups

Winslow contrasted MapInfo's technological capabilities to those of less formal data mashups that let users plot internal corporate data on Google or other consumer maps. Google Maps, he said, doesn't contain "detailed information on your competitors," for example.

"Users [who] want to go beyond the snapshot, start to interact with the data carefully, and add on additional accurate geographic information in order to get more precise reference points and apply that information back to the initial reports" need technology more sophisticated than consumer mapping technologies, Winslow said.

Carl Richardson, BI product manager at MassHousing, said his organization considered going the mashup route but ultimately chose Cognos/MapInfo technology because of its superior analysis capabilities and relative simplicity.

"Basically you set up some parameters, and those maps can be made on the fly using Cognos data," Richardson said. MassHousing, which has been a Cognos customer for more than 15 years, began using beta versions of the embedded MapInfo software two years ago.

Currently, just 25 of MassHousing's 300 employees use the technology, but Richardson plans to roll out location intelligence to the rest of the organization soon. "The demand for mapping [technology] is growing extensively," he said, "and this will help me meet that need."

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