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Business intelligence in government--geospatial data

The growing importance of Geospatial Data for business intelligence in government is rapidly impacting the industry.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

Business intelligence encompasses the use of geospatial data and geographic information systems, which have now been around for the last few decades. Yet, the takeoff for their use has been slow, particularly in the public sector. This currently is changing rapidly with profound impact for business intelligence.

In any analytical process, there are always a handful of key dimensions. Management invariably needs to organize their reporting framework in a way that will allow them to understand “Who did what to whom? When? Why? How? … and Where?” This last dimension—where—is the domain of geospatial data and its value in business intelligence is usually extracted through Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

As humans, we live in the confines of 3-D space. Since very early times, maps have been the principal tool we have employed to address the where dimension. Maps also have given us the ability to demarcate political boundaries, identify the location of natural resources or chart out pathways across land, air or water from one place to another in the world. If maps had not been devised we would have had a very difficult time throughout history. Furthermore, a case can be made that better maps—or the capability to visually display geographical intelligence—was a principal competitive advantage leading to the rise of major powers throughout history.

Geospatial data are just the bits and bytes that record the precise geographic location of a place (e.g., a country, a city, a river, a lake, etc.) on the surface of our planet. We have devised a convenient grid of longitudes and latitudes that allow us to pinpoint where any entity (e.g., a plane, an automobile, a person, a building, a telephone pole, etc.) actually sits on that grid. (Altitude is also important, but let’s leave that alone for the moment.) Geographic information systems encompass the software tools that allow you to process geospatial data for a specific application (e.g., law enforcement, environmental protection, address location, etc.) and project the data onto a map on the screen.

The mission of government, particularly in the United States, is also very much focused on geography … and the where dimension. We are a representative democracy, and our representation is based on numbers of people within geography. There are, of course, two senators for each state of the union. And the number of representatives is proportionate to the size of the population in that state, duly distributed in “congressional districts” that are redesigned through a political process driven by a constitutionally mandated census every 10 years.

Because of these facts, we have long perceived that integrating geospatial data with other data would be very desirable in IT for the public sector. Furthermore, it is obvious that citizen-centric government must also be very tied to geography.

Most human cognition is visually driven. Hence, we are able to better understand the meaning of important data distributions and statistical measures when they are displayed onto maps on a screen. In effect, what we have been seeing over the last few years has been a strong move in that direction.

Today we are using geospatial data and geographic information systems in many ways to enhance the way our government operates whether it’s at the federal, state or local levels. Defense, intelligence and homeland security are some of the most obvious areas for application within the government. In effect, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is fully dedicated to support these efforts, both in peacetime and in war. But it is outside these areas where a revolution is in the offing. The following examples illustrate our point:

  • Healthcare: Preventing the spread of an epidemic can be difficult. It starts with the need to identify the exact location of each case, when it was identified and treated. The diffusion of the illness can be tracked much more effectively when geospatial data are displayed on a screen and the number of cases can be color coded to indicate both intensity as well as timing.
  • Agriculture: Forecasting the crop yields from a producing area can be done through imaging techniques. Specific agricultural regions where a crop has been planted can be color coded, the time to harvest estimated and the health of crops assessed. This reduces the time it takes to produce a forecast and improves its accuracy.
  • Governance: Redistricting is at the heart of the American political process. Mandated by our Constitution, we must conduct a decennial census to calibrate the proportionality of our geographical representation. The ability to do this as fairly and expeditiously as possible is greatly enhanced by displaying census data on a screen and comparing the current and previous population numbers in the context of other important factors such as roads, highways, rivers, lakes and other features.
  • Justice: Law enforcement organizations have been mapping the incidence of crime in metropolitan areas for quite some time. What’s new is the ability to integrate this with information from large databases from other relevant organizations. Seeing the use of a credit card pop up on a screen on a map allows better predictions of where a suspect might be going. Identifying geographical patterns in the financial transactions of an individual or an organization tend to provide insights that investigators can use to crack a case.
  • Transportation: Traffic engineers are greatly assisted in their work today through the visual integration of demographic information with geography. Through census data it is possible to know the numbers of people in households and the neighborhoods where they live, as well as where they work and the commute times involved. This allows them to better predict—and hence address—traffic flows.
  • Weather: Weather is critical for agriculture, transportation, law enforcement, military and many other aspects of our economy. But meteorology is essentially anchored in geography. Our ability to integrate our databases from these other activities and display them onto maps that show weather patterns allows us to do a much better job of predicting its impact on air travel, crop yields or specific military campaigns.

As we continue to explore the power of business intelligence to improve citizen services by our government, let us focus increasingly on the uses of geospatial information.

Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

Dr. Barquin is a member of the E-Gov (Electronic Government) Advisory Board, and chair of its knowledge management conference series; member of the Digital Government Institute Advisory Board; and has been the Program Chair for E-Government and Knowledge Management programs at the Brookings Institution. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. Dr. Barquin can be reached at

Editor's note: More government articles, resources, news and events are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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