GEOGRAPHY IN BUSINESS? – GIS for Business and Service Planning


In the rush to create bigger and better technical solutions, many in the GIS industry tend to forget that the discipline known as “geography” is the basis of GIS. GIS provides nothing more than the opportunity to manipulate and analyse geographical phenomena using automated systems. In fact, Michael Goodchild, director of the US National Center for Geographic Information Analysis (NCGIA) quite “recently” suggested (Goodchild 1992) that the acronym GIS should be understood to stand for “geographic information science”. This new definition would place more emphasis on analysis of “geographic information” and less on “system”.


In this part, we will look at three categories of integration between business, geography and GIS:

  1. Business projects in which a geography department is involved.
  2. Business projects in which former geography students are involved.
  3. Business projects in which a consultancy of professors is involved.

To fully understand integration between geography and business, it is important to take a look at each of these categories individually:

  1. Business projects and geography departments

Perhaps the best example of an excellent project in which a geography department and business entity are working together is the South Carolina State Development Boards and the University of South Carolina. The project was awarded the Industrial Development Research Council’s Outstanding Area Research Award and has been shown on the popular US television programme “Good Morning America”. As a graduate student at the South Carolina in 1986, the author had the opportunity to be involved with the very early stages of this project.

The economic development programme is run by the state, and is charged with “marketing” the state of South Carolina to businesses in order to convince them to locate in the state. At a first glance, this project might appear to be one in which a university and government agency are working together, and while that is the case, the emphasis is clearly on the business aspects of attracting industry. In this country, states vie with each other and there is strong competition to bring an automobile manufacturing plant, for example, into a state. This is particularly true in the south-east, a region that is still recovering from the exodus of the textile industry to foreign shores, and, some would say, from the Civil War! States spend millions of dollars to promote their work force, economic conditions and quality of life. Dr. Dave Cowen, a professor of geography in the University of South Carolina (USC) and Sena H. Black, who was (formerly) with the Development Board, wrote the following illuminating comments about university GIS programmes and their general ability to provide service to the “real world”:

Throughout the history of GIS, universities have played an important role in the development of technical aspects of the field. They also have performed innovative research and have served as the training ground for much of the manpower for the field. At the same time, they are notorious for their poor performance as sites for supporting operational GIS activities. Nevertheless, all the participants in the design and implementation of the South Carolina Infrastructure and Economic Development Planning Project system acknowledge that the key to its success has been the relationship between the Development Board and the University. (Black and Cowen 1991)

Despite this condemnation of university support of operational GIS, the University of South Carolina has done very well. The SCIP project (South Carolina Infrastructure and Economic Development Planning Project), as it is known, is a major state-wide GIS. It includes databases that can be used primarily for site selection. Data layers include: transportation; water supply systems; waste water systems; air quality; land cover and land use; flood plains; demographics; directories of existing businesses and industries; available buildings; and available sites. These databases support queries such as “Find an available building that has at least 300 000 square feet of space suitable for manufacturing, has railway access, has sufficient water supply to support activity X, is near to the suppliers of materials needed for activity X, and is surrounded by a workforce with X characteristics.”

In addition to responding to this kind of query, the system offers the much vaunted advantage of graphics and interfaces which give the impression that South Carolina must be a very progressive, forward-thinking state to have such a system – in other words, that it must be a good place to locate, relocate or develop! While de state has been in the position to reap the most visible benefits, USC also has gained significantly from the partnership. The richness of the database developed for the project has allowed USC to be involved in other projects with local utilities and with a NASA grant. In addition, the attention they have gained from the project has resulted in significant hardware donations (Black and Cowen 1991)

  1. Business projects in which former geography students are involved.

This section describes two projects in which students from USC’s GIS programme are involved. While a USC bias could be argued, the fact remains that it has been an important institution in providing a solid GIS background with a very applied focus. The first project is the Georgia State economic development programme and the second is a major GIS implementation of the United Parcel Service (UPS).

The GIS project manager at the South Carolina State Development Board was William Shinar, a former graduate student of Cowen’s at USC. He recently moved over to the University of Georgia to work on that state’s economic development programme as the state’s Economic Development Director. Unlike USC, which is primarily a teaching institution, the University of Geogria is the state’s “land grant” college. A land grant college’s traditional goal has been to transfer technology from its research programmes to the state’s population, with the objective that this will improve the state population’s quality of life. (The most typical and traditional example of technology transfer is in agricultural programmes.) As such, the University of Georgia has three primary divisions: teaching, research and service. The service division is where the technology transfer takes place. Shinar is in the service division and is not attached to a geography programme at the university. While South Carolina’s economic development programme is somewhat centralized within the development board, Georgia’s programme is more decentralized. The work Shinar is doing is primarily focused on developing databases to support decentralized economic development groups. These include the state’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade, Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power, Savannah Power and Light, the Georgia Resource Center, various local and regional chambers of commerce, and small business development offices. At the time of writing (1994), the programme is still in its first year. Shinar and his team are close to finishing cleaning the street file databases, which will serve as the transportation base layer. In addition, they are mapping existing industries across the state, as well as available buildings and sites, water and sewer systems and traffic flows.

United Parcel Service (UPS) is a major package-delivery service, delivering 11 million packages daily in 185 countries. Tony Lupien, GIS Division Manager at Roadnet Technologies and former USC student, has been instrumental in supplying GIS-related technology to this giant organization. Roadnet is a wholly owned subsidiary of UPS. During its 85-year history, UPS has “depended on industrial engineering to optimize delivery, distribution, logistics activities and movements’ (Kunze 1993). The company has managed to cut costs and time in delivering packages by analysing all the elements that play a role in package delivery. In 1985, they began to analyse GIS as a possible too to increase efficiency. Because of competitive advantage issues, the company is somewhat cagey about describing exactly how GIS is exactly used. We do know, however, that GIS is used “for day-to-day operations including package sorting, routing, truck loading and dispatch” (Kunze 1993). GIS is also used in the company’s On-Call Air service, in which a customer may call an 800 (toll-free) number to request package collection. In addition, UPS has formed a new company, UPS Worldwide Logistics, to make their GIS knowledge available to UPS customers.

It is clear that students coming out of GIS programmes are making substantial contributions to the implementation of GIS in business and service planning. It has only been in the last ten years that such students have been produced by programmes around the country, but it is clearly a strong trend. According to GIS World’s database, there were, in 1994, 580 college and university programmes around the country, but it is clearly a strong trend. According to GIS World’s database, there were, in 1994, 580 college and university programmes in the US and Canada that taught at least one course in GIS. Randy Majors is a good example of the type of student currently being produced by the University of Colorado. He is working for a commercial and industrial real estate brokerage whose owner has developed a substantial manual and automated GIS to assist in “making real estate deals”. Majors’ objective is to develop a data sales programme to sell the brokerage’s (non-proprietary) databases to other GIS users.

  1. Business projects in which a consultancy of professors is involved.

For the most part, universities in the US tend not to be entrepreneurial organizations, and do not adapt quickly to change (cf. Clarke and Clarke; and also Clarke et al.). This is especially true of arts and science colleges. In some institutions of higher learning, real-world applications can even carry a stigma because they are not considered “academic”, which by definition is “not applied”. Because of this and other factors, quite a few professors have their own consultancies that apply GIS to business problems. In some cases, these consultancies use techniques that were developed as part of a professor’s research. This section describes three such consultancies that work with private-sector clients all three are somewhat evasive about naming and/or describing their clients, but are happy to describe techniques used.

Bowne Distinct is a logistics company based in Columbia, Maryland. Dr. Larry Bodin, who is a professor of operations research at the University of Maryland business school’s Management Sciences and Statistics division, is one of its principals. Research at the university is orientated towards developing test algorithms that solve simple problems on small databases. These algorithms might, for example, work towards solving routeing problems with barriers such as one-way streets. The algorithms developed at the university are then transferred to Bowne Distinct for fuller implementation in real-world cases. The routeing algorithm that addresses specific issues such as one-way streets would be further developed and revised to address an actual client’s needs.

Dr. Brady Foust of the University of Winconsin, Eau Claire, and Dr. Howard Botts of the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, are both professors of geography. They are partners in a GIS consultancy called Matrix Research. Their primary interest is in developing and analysing actual and potential trade areas for retail clients (Foust and Botts 1993). They have developed a technique to create “market penetration polygons” (MPPs) that come closer to studies. Foust and Botts use a variety of techniques to establish an MPP, including traditional licence plate surveys. Licence plate surveys were pioneered in the US by R. L. Polk during the 1970s. This technique consists of going to a store’s or a shopping centre’s parking lot and writing down a list of licence plate numbers of all the cars found in that parking lot. Each car owner’s address is then extracted from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles registration files. In almost all states in the US, this information is in the public domain and available at a relatively low cost. Once the address is obtained for each car, those address can be plotted on a map (now done using computers, street files and address geo-coding techniques) and the rough trade area can be established for that store or shopping centre.

Dr. Michael Robbins is the academic behind GRAASroot Real Estate Counseling, a Denver-based counsultancy that works with real-estate issues. Robbins is a professor at the University of Denver College of Business Administration’s Real Estate and Construction Management Program. His consulting practice has been involved with projects in Colorado and elsewhere that dealt with valuation, site selection and development. Robbins said in a recent interview: “I like to believe that most of what I do is walking the tightrope between business and academia” (Robbins 1993). He uses scholarly research to find real-estate applications for real-world clients in his consulting practice.

Although there may be relatively less direct interaction between academia and business in the US than there is in the UK as it specifically relates to GIS, the previous case studies provide examples of how indirect interaction has and will continue to affect the “business geographics” market evolution.


“As the status of geographical education in the US improves, there will be numerous opportunities for the geographical academic community and the business GIS-user community to forge ties to work together. In the last year I have spoken to many in academic organizations who are interested in developing components of their GIS programmes that will specifically focus on “business geographics” applications. In addition, business academics are rapidly discovering GIS and implementing it within their own programmes. “GIS World” has published a book, “Profiting from a Geographic Information System” (Castle 1993a), which has been adopted for several classes. It was certainly not designed to be used as a class text. This somewhat surprising development clearly indicates that some GIS programmes are starting to include practical business applications in their curricula.”

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GIS for business


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