As a central part of system automation and informed decision making, business analytics and the use of big data will play a major role in supply chain, logistics and infrastructure management. Today, the Internet of Things (IoT), with its sensors that record information along the points in the supply chain and transportation infrastructures, can alert managers of traffic jams, infrastructure repair needs and the timeliness of goods transport. This sensor tracking is particularly effective when it links into GPS tracking and geographic information systems (GIS).

A case in point is a medical shipment that is transported in a sealed container that must be maintained at a specific temperature and humidity. A sensor inserted into the container can transmit the status of the internal temperature and humidity of the container — and issue an alert if these temperature and humidity readings vary, or if the seal on the container is broken, which could signify container damage or tampering.

Businesses that focus on logistics are also applying sensors with GIS and GPS for purposes of route planning and tracking and inventory management. In these cases, trucks used for transport are equipped with automated GPS tracking that feeds into a central logistics management system at headquarters. This enables management to see, at any given point in time, whether drivers are ahead or behind schedule on their routes, and whether they are using the most optimal routes to deliver goods. Some companies have gone even further. They have eliminated central warehousing of inventory, and instead carry “moving inventory” in their trucking fleets so they can reduce excess inventory-carrying charges in warehouses and get goods to customers faster. If a truck servicing one area lacks a part that one of its customers needs, the central system is able to locate the next closest truck that carries the part and then route that truck to the customer so the order can be filled.

In the city of Melbourne, Australia, Yarra Trams manages a 100-year-old tram network with more than 250 kilometers of double tracks, 91,000 pieces of equipment that have been turned into 91,000 data points, and 487 trams that travel on 20 different routes.

Yarra uses a central network that monitors the health of the tram system on a 24/7 basis, mixing elements of sensors, geospatial data and GIS. Collectively, the technology improves customer service by getting alerts from any geographical point within the system when a piece of equipment or a portion of track is about to fail. A maintenance crew is immediately dispatched to repair the problem, and the tram and its customers never experience downtime.

“While GIS gives you the information about ‘where,’ through information extraction routines, remote sensing gives you the information about ‘what,’” says Mladen Stojic, vice president of Geospatial at Intergraph. “By merging the two, we now have the opportunity to do modeling with raster data, vector data and, on top of that, terrain data.”

The challenge for companies and public sector organizations now, however, is twofold:

1. Finding easy ways to bring a diverse number of sources together into a composite GIS-geospatial visualization

2. Affording the technology that enables it

Sensor-generated data today comes from a diverse set of sources. In the geospatial world, it can also be combined with large LiDAR data files. Integrating all of this data into a single visualization often takes many separate and time-consuming steps. Some of the data capture technology, like LiDAR, has also only recently begun to come down in price.

The good news for companies is that cloud-based delivery of composite geospatial-GIS imagery enables users to subscribe on an on-demand basis to a service that can prepare geospatial-GIS visualizations of data. By subscribing to a service, companies can pay for experts whom they might not have on their staffs and still get the integration of geospatial technology and appended data layers that they desire for a full GIS visualization.

Of course, there is still the issue of the raw data capture itself, especially challenging because of the diversity of new and emerging data sources that companies want to append to their geospatial information backbones.

More of this information acquisition is both attainable and affordable with the drop in LiDAR technology prices. At the same time, more satellites are capturing and relaying geospatial information, and more companies are deploying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are capable of capturing visual imagery — especially in geographically rugged or inaccessible areas. Meanwhile, vendors of centralized GIS systems are continuously working on data integration workflows and interfaces that enable easier incorporation of new raw data along with the transformation of this data into a final geospatial visualization that is enriched by appended information.

All of this points to a surge in the use of geospatial technology in combination with GIS and sensor-driven data. This was confirmed in recent research by Deloitte Development, which predicts that by 2020, geospatial technology will be employed to:

  • Aid in new fields like geomedicine with clinical diagnoses that provide better understanding of the links between patient health and contextual factors, such as where patients live, work and play.
  • Use indoors at airports and other public facilities as Wi-Fi re-transmitters that can receive GPS satellite signals.
  • Collect spatially related information from social networks with satellite-generated locations to enhance locational and user activity information.
  • Be used as a security authentication mechanism to verify a user’s location and identity.
  • Complement and enable “Internet of Things” technology.
  • Create safer, more intelligent and more energy-efficient infrastructures for power companies, communications companies, cities and governments.

Some of this is already happening, so how can companies take best advantage of it?

1. Assess your strategic information goals and build a technology roadmap for your organization.

The best way to get started with next-generation capabilities in geospatial, sensor and GIS technology is to tackle one small project at a time. Ideally, the completion of each project should be a step toward the next project in a continuum of strategic business goals that the organization has defined for itself. There is inherent danger in going for a large, “big bang” project upfront, because the interfaces and integration of information required to bring geospatial, GIS and sensor-based data all into a single visualization is far from mature.

2. Assess your staff capabilities.

The Deloitte report concluded that by 2020, the location-based service market would be a $1.3 trillion industry, generating $500 billion in consumer value. The growth of geospatial information will also increase the demand for geographers (35 percent per annum through 2020) and for cartographers/photogrammetrists (22 percent per annum through 2020). If you lack some of these skillsets internally, it isn’t too early to start hiring for them or seeking out vendors and/or cloud-based services that can fill in the talent gaps for you.  

3. Consider security and privacy issues.

If you opt to outsource all or some of your geospatial/GIS data, analytics and visualizations to a cloud-based vendor, the vendor should be vetted for security and data safekeeping. Minimally, the vendor should be able to match the same security and governance standards for information that your own company requires of itself. If you determine that your own internal guidelines for security and safe data need review, now is the time to do it. Contracting with an external auditor to review your present security and data safekeeping practices is one way that you can ensure that your security and data governance are where they should be.

4. Most importantly, have a clear vision of the value that your geospatial and GIS investments will bring to your company and its consumers.

In the end, technology investments are measured by the business value that they deliver. For companies, this value comes in the form of customer service, growth of customer revenues, and also the efficiencies and cost savings that are gained in internal operations.  If you can stand before your board and stakeholders and clearly demonstrate the business value of your investments, you are well on your way.