with guest contributor Ryan Roark
Business occurs in a specific place. Your transactions have many potential geographic elements to them. Answering the “where” question might be the lowest hanging fruit of your BI implementation. It is probably the area where the greatest value can be gained with the lowest additional investment. Existing tools make this mapping quite easy and odds are that the data you need already exists in your data warehouse. This post provides an overview of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools in the market, providing a starting point to start answering the “where” question.
GIS provides geographic intelligence via a variety of analysis techniques and views, typically displayed on a map. There are a number of tools and platforms in the market today that can help you manage your geographic data. Knowing the tools that exist, and what they do, will help you uncover new insights. The tools range from free and simple to licensed and robust. This is not an exhaustive list, but should introduce you to some of the tools and get you started.
The creators of some of the most common mapping tools (e.g. Google Maps, Google Earth) have also built tools that allow you to analyze your data against their maps.
Google Fusion Tables
Google Fusion Tables (GFT) is a beta feature of Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) and is free to use. Users can upload their data directly to Google’s servers (250MB per user) and manipulate it in their browser. Real time data filters, aggregates, and merging with other Fusion Tables are all functions that will help you manage your data set.
You can view your data on a map and the location data will be automatically geo-coded and plotted. GFT also supports KML shapes that draw as polygons on your map. GFT, while it is still in beta, provides a lot of easy to use functionality and Google is still making improvements (e.g. Gradient Heat Maps still has room to improve).
With Google Earth (GE), you can use 3rd party tools to generate a KML file that GE can visualize in a 3D environment. In this example, GE-Graph was used to generate 3D shapes in GE. While your mileage may vary with intelligence gained, this tool certainly has some “curb appeal.”
QlikView is a popular Business Intelligence solution provided by QlikTech and their mapping capabilities are extended by Analytics8 with QlikMaps. QlikMaps is the glue that binds Google Maps and QlikView together. QlikMaps also provides additional analysis tools on top of Google Maps that aren’t possible in tools like GFT (e.g. Radar Charts). Along with all the advanced data analysis tools provided by QlikView, this tool set is a more powerful option for managing your locational-aware data. A demo of what QlikMaps provides can be found here.
Developed by Pitney Bowes, MapInfo is a standalone package that provides GIS analysis on Windows-based computers. The tool integrates with SAP Crystal Reports, but to really interact with the data you will need a copy of the software – there is no browser-based interface or mobile client. This is not a free tool (30-day trial available), but packs a lot of features into their application – most everything mentioned above. Take a look at its feature list here or watch a demo of its features here.
QGIS is a cross-platform, open source GIS application that has increased functionality above the tools we have listed above, which could create a steeper learning curve. It supports 3rd party plugins and has an extensive list of features. For a complete list of features, check their Features Page.
QGIS competes as the open source alternative to the next product, ESRI’s ArcGIS.
Arguably the largest player in the GIS market, ESRI develops and licenses GIS software suites.
ArcGIS is a GIS suite developed by ESRI and is the most mature tool on this list. This software does more than any of the tools we’ve discussed so far (and probably more than any tool on the market), but the learning curve is also steeper as a result. ArcGIS also comes with a price tag but a 30-day trial is also available. The available functionality of this tool is the most comprehensive we’ve seen on the market. ESRI has also integrated their solution into many non-GIS tools like SharePoint, mobile phones and tablets, and AutoCAD.
Dedicated to Business Intelligence, Alteryx has created tools for analyzing data and making informed decisions. They offer a few products and they are also partnered with number of companies that can provide additional data (including geospatial data) to help analyze your market.
Designer’s Desktop is one of Alteryx’s main offerings, a desktop application for analyzing data that leverages drag-and-drop modules that can be connected to one another, effectively keeping users out of code. While some of the functionality is focused on BI tasks like ETL, there is also a spatial component with support for the most common file types (e.g. Shape files and KML files) in the GIS field. Even if you don’t use Alteryx for data analysis, you can easily plug-in exported files or connect to an external database to access your data.
Designer’s Desktop is one of the most mature products on this list. The learning curve on this product is slightly steeper than average despite its drag-and-drop nature, but they offer a 30-day trial to allow you to get comfortable. With geospatial tightly integrated into the product its clear this is not just a BI tool and legitimate geospatial option.
Where To Go From Here
While this is not a comprehensive list of GIS tools and utilities that exist today, it should serve as a starter’s guide for some of the GIS players in the market. Try out some of the tools with your data. Browse the websites of the listed products to understand all the functionality they can provide. Share your success stories. A picture is worth a thousand words.