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Location Intelligence: A Brief Look at the Past Part 1 of a 3-Part Series

Originally published May 19, 2011

In this series of articles on location intelligence (LI), we'll examine how we came to location intelligence and discuss its present and possible future. This article, Part 1, looks at a very brief history of location intelligence to bring us to the present day, which we will explore in Part 2 and project into the future in Part 3.
Location intelligence has been with us since caveman days when hunters drew in the sand to show the location of game and how best to use the terrain to approach them. It has also been with us since the first clash between rival clans, and its importance was recognized by the great military strategist Sun Tzu who described six types of terrains in his first millennium B.C. essays on the art of war.
Not much has changed if you think about it. Considering such things as proximity to transportation, businesses look for the best locations to find customers, and generals look for high ground to deploy their troops. What’s different is the breadth and depth of tools available to analyze and exploit the location dimension of a wide range of problems facing businesses, governments, and individuals today. Pictures in the sand have become paper and electronic maps drawn from the grains of bits and bytes representing coordinates sitting in digital files or databases. With location data stored digitally in a database, spatial analyses of the complex relationships among the data are possible.


The term "location intelligence" is a relatively new term in this digital era that began some 30 or more years ago. It was introduced in large part to describe how location analysis could be applied primarily to common business problems such as site selection or customer profiling. It was also introduced at a time when technology advances put the economics of acquiring the hardware, databases and application software needed to host, organize, and use this locational data within reach of smaller organizations. This launched a new generation of companies that challenged the established market leaders who traditionally served deep-pocket government, military, and commercial organizations such as utility, petroleum, and transportation companies who had extensive, distributed infrastructure that needed to be accurately mapped.
Concentrating instead on main street businesses such as retail, insurance, banking, hospitality and other commercial businesses, the new entrants provided lower cost solutions by delivering a targeted subset of the functionality provided by the market leaders deployed on low cost desktop computers that had become well established within main street businesses. They also targeted a different user base, not the professional geographer who used the applications and services of market-leading vendors of comprehensive geographic information systems (GISs), but to business users whose job descriptions included location analysis but who did not have the formal geography education or computer literacy of the GIS user.
Dozens of LI vendors appeared and for nearly a decade enjoyed a market niche largely ignored or underserved by the GIS vendors. Their main limitation was an inability to scale beyond the desktop and a handful of specialized users, but this was also their main shield from the GIS vendors who were now focused on client-server technologies to serve their growing user communities more cost-effectively on powerful server hardware. Although the GIS vendors also had some notable success in business market, the LI spotlight was on the smaller, more focused and user-friendly LI vendors.

The Google Age

Then came the Internet, Google, and Web 2.0, which changed everything. At first the Internet facilitated the consumption of static LI content (maps) just as it did for all other content (media). GIS vendors and pure-play LI vendors developed technologies and websites that provided access to maps and associated data (e.g., demographics) to business users via the ubiquitous web browser. People no longer had to install anything on their machines, and those vendors who had designed their sites for ease of use by even the "geographically challenged" user enjoyed at least a following, if not a profit. However, the early use of the Internet was troublesome and expensive for all vendors.
Eventually, web bandwidth and technology improved at all levels, and standards became settled. But this alone was not enough to move the geospatial vendors to aggressively adopt them. For this it took fear of marginalization or even extinction brought on from outside the geospatial solar system: a potential cataclysm in the form of Google Maps that threatened all geospatial life as we knew it.
Google maps immediately captured the minds of everyday Internet users who didn't even know GIS or LI vendors existed. Internet surfers loved the imagery and ability to "fly" around the earth. Hackers soon learned how to crack Google's JavaScript user interface to create maps of everything from store locators to toilet locators, crime maps, points of interest, and even UFO sightings. There seemed no limit to the things you could overlay on Google maps and draw the interest of someone. Business people discovered its benefits as well, using Google imagery for site evaluation, real estate sales, competitive analysis, and more. Google Maps were cut and pasted into PowerPoint presentations, enhanced with its drawing tools, and incorporated into reports of all kinds.
In 2006, Google responded to the hackers by introducing mapping APIs that allowed developers and non-developers alike to easily put Google Maps into their own websites using JavaScript, and the age of "mashups" began. Both consumer and business mashups grew at a rapid rate. Even the users of traditional GIS vendors saw departments outside their GIS silos run to mashups because they were quick and simple to create and good enough for many applications. These APIs spawned another generation of LI vendors who knew little or nothing about traditional GIS or LI technology but instead began layering all kinds of business content on top of Google Maps to help users to better consider locational context in their decision making. Hundreds of new web-based LI applications were developed almost overnight.

The Changing Vendor Landscape

During this same period, several traditional business intelligence (BI) vendors began using the APIs of both GIS and LI vendors and the new Google APIs to add maps to their front-end tools. Graphs and charts of regional sales now became maps, and spatial queries were added to the SQL vocabulary, allowing users to leverage the location dimension by looking at data through spatial filters to find things based on containment, proximity and other spatial functions as well as view the results in context with other spatial data, such as imagery from Google Maps, to help interpret and use the data in new ways.

In common with the traditional GIS and LI vendors, the traditional BI vendors were also facing threats from smaller vendors who were using the new technologies and APIs to develop more focused and inexpensive alternatives to their market leading BI applications. New to a world by now accustomed to maps, thanks to Google, the challengers were quick to use mashups to add maps to their products. Dozens of new BI vendors appeared and began to change the BI and LI landscapes forever.

By the end of the decade, the landscape included a mix of old and new GIS, LI and BI vendors leveraging standards-based mapping technologies and APIs to develop applications that were easy to use and deploy and good enough for many business users still largely unaware of all they could do with mapping and spatial analysis. Google mapping APIs ushered in the age of mashups and helped enlarge LI but as users became more aware of mapping and spatial analysis capabilities the Google shine began to fade and the more functional APIs of traditional GIS and LI vendors gained ground with both users and vendors. Many users and BI vendors took advantage of both Google and other vendor mapping APIs which can generally be used together. Today, the mapping, analytic and spatial content APIs offered by traditional GIS and LI vendors expose more functionality than most business users can digest, or both old and new BI vendors can incorporate into their products. But the trend to add more mapping and spatial analysis features is both rising sharply and irreversible.

As we entered the new century, tectonic shifts in technology continued to create new ground in which the seeds of in-memory analytics, operational business intelligence, cloud computing, and mobile business intelligence were deposited by the winds of change, and the DNA of location intelligence was inherited by them all.

In part 2 of this series, we look at the major features of this new landscape as well as the use cases and technologies that inhabit it. Part 3 will look at the near future of location intelligence and speculate on what's over the horizon.

SOURCE: Location Intelligence: A Brief Look at the Past

  • Steve BennerSteve Benner
    Steve is founder of The Location Intelligence Institute, an education resource focused on assisting business executives in the use of geospatial technology to improve business processes and decision making. He has a broad background in both business processes and geospatial technology and practical experience in bringing the two together. Steve has managed location intelligence integration projects with major business intelligence (BI) vendors and has helped dozens of organizations understand and implement geospatially enabled business and business intelligence solutions. 
    Steve has helped spread the word about location intelligence as a contributor to IBM Data Warehousing (Gonzales, Wiley, 2003) and Real Estate Market Valuation and Analysis (Karr, Wiley 2005) and as a presenter at industry and user group meetings worldwide.
    Steve holds a BS in accounting and marketing from the University of Maine and an MBA from Boston College with a focus on operations research. He can be reached at inquiries@tlii.org.

    Editor's Note: More articles and resources are available in Steve's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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