What is a GIS?

A Geographical Information System (GIS) is a tool for analysing, visualising, managing and presenting data that is related to a physical, geographical location. That link to geography is the key difference between GIS and other data visualisation techniques. Tabular data, sometimes known as “attribute” data, is cross referenced with this location or “spatial” data, to put it in a context that allows for ease-of-understanding, analysis and decision making.

GIS vs geospatial data

At a most basic level, this geographical context might be mapping actual locations of a site alongside nearby influencing features such as roads, transport hubs or competitors. At a more advanced level, one map could show multi-layer data including geographic features with colour and overlays showing sales territories, customer densities, or market penetration in an area. A related buzz word is Geospatial technology and a GIS is one example of this – although “geospatial” encompasses a wider range of data technology including things like GPS or Lidar.

What kind of data will I find in a GIS?

You will always find a minimum of two types of data in GIS software. The first is raster data which is, in simple terms, the large images or maps upon which to overlay your data. Because our own specialism is UK business data, our raster data tends to come from Ordnance Survey (OS) or Collins Bartholomew, as their road network and infrastructure maps give the perfect amount of data for business, network, or customer analysis. Another GIS, focussed on geology for example, might use topographical maps, aerial photographs, three dimensional imagery, or even Lidar images as its rasters.

The second type of data is vector data. Vectors map geographical locations in a geometric way that means they can be processed accurately by computer. They can be used to analyse details on maps such as road and rail networks, postcode or administrative boundaries, and coastlines. This vector data, allows a GIS to map a user’s own unique data into a geographical context, whilst the rasters allow it to be displayed in an attractive and user-friendly way.

On top of the two core data building blocks of rasters and vectors, you will of course put your own data for analysis, often called “attribute data”. In the context of our area of expertise, this could be store locations, sales territories, competitor, customer, or resident data. Once you add in an understanding of the impact of location and context to any aspect of your organisation it takes your decision making abilities to a whole new level.


An example of tabular data vs. GIS data display.

Tabular data can be very difficult to analyse in its raw state. A GIS can help to display this data in a far more intuitive way.

What can a GIS be used for?

The potential applications of analysing trends or features in an area are very broad. Globally, people use GIS to look at climate, migration, and economic trends. Nationally people look at population changes, social trends, and crime patterns, whilst locally the scope for detailed analysis of any feature is possible. Here are a few examples of the uses you could put a GIS to, taken from our own experience in the commercial and private sector;

  • Location mapping: The most basic application of a GIS, but still not as simple as it would seem. No single map contains all of the location data that a user might need. For example, a road map won’t tell you anything about the buildings near a road, whilst a residential map won’t give you any insight into local facilities, services and points of interest. A GIS can bring all of the information you need into one place and display it.
  • Map the characteristics of a region: Businesses often need to investigate characteristics of a region such as demographic types, network data (such as road, rail and utilities), or socio-economic data.
  • Analyse distance or travel time: How easy is it for customers to reach your location. Equally, how easy is it for your sales team or delivery fleet to service customers. This can be very useful for setting sales, delivery or franchise territories.
  • Monitor trends and change in a geographic region: How has an area developed or the population changed. Local authorities use GIS analysis to identify vulnerable groups and the effectiveness of local services.
  • Visualise quantity and density of an audience: How many people of a certain type live within an area, what proportion of these are current customers, do the remainder match the profile of potential customers.

Drilling down into GIS data

Once you have decided on an application for your GIS, the potential to drill down into the detail of location data is staggering. If we explore just the last subject from the above list, the business insight you can gain is substantial;

  • Where are your closest customers?
  • How far away do your best customers come from?
  • Do those people travelling further spend more and do they shop as regularly as locals?
  • Do your best customers live in hot-spots of other like-minded people to whom you could market?
  • Does the transport network limit some customers getting to you, or do some customers have a disproportionate travel time?
  • Where else do similar groups exist? Are they within travel distance or do you need to consider remote selling, opening a new store, or relocating?
  • How many competitors do customers pass on the way to see you?

Remember that in addition to your own data, you could also feed in demographic or public data such as the census to give you even richer business intelligence. The possibilities are endless once you consider how many factors relate to spatial data or are affected by geography.

What is the future of GIS technology?

Beacon Dodsworth have spent more than 25 years working with GIS technology and in this time we have seen major improvements in interface, processing power and functionality.

GIS use was initially limited to a dedicated environment, ideally on a powerful, or preferably a network of powerful computers and operated by trained specialists. Nowadays GIS are more manageable, so that anyone with a desktop PC can run a robust form of GIS, such as our own Prospex software. Recently the internet has developed the data bandwidth to support online GIS tools, as such we have developed our online MapVision product. MapVision offers accessible, resource-light GIS functions without the need to host any software locally. This opens up geographical analysis and location intelligence to smaller businesses who wouldn't previously have had the resources or expertise to benefit from such valuable insight.

GIS technology is still in its infancy and is a rapidly developing field. With data collection increasing, and an increasingly global outlook in all fields, a tool to help to make this data understandable, and put it in context, is more valuable than ever. A GIS is a great way to avoid data overload and make the most informed decisions from large datasets, so its place in business and beyond is assured.

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