In 1854, cholera struck the Soho district of London, and a physician named John Snow used maps to chart the locations of outbreaks. Snow concluded that many cases could be traced back to a single public water pump. He was one of the first to use a geographic information system (GIS) concept to solve a significant problem in healthcare. (Read more at:

Today, GIS is no different. It continues to solve problems in healthcare and other industry sectors—and it is rapidly advancing new capabilities that not only problem-solve, but that transform businesses and how GIS professionals, employees and managers make decisions and do their jobs.

The power of GIS

“The power of GIS is now reaching entire organizations,” said Brian Cross, director of the professional services division for Esri, which provides mapping software, spatial data analytics and location intelligence. “For many years GIS has been a powerful scientific analytical toolset used by experts who created maps and analysis results, but in the last five years the technology has evolved so that every worker in the enterprise has access to location intelligence to help them do their work more effectively.”

This organization-wide transformation has democratized GIS by placing it into the hands of many more people so they can now do their jobs without necessarily needing to be GIS experts.

“Modern applications also allow people to do work in the field and sync that back with headquarters,” said Cross. “So, while GIS has always been a system of record, it has now evolved into a system of engagement and insight that everyone in an entire organization can take advantage of.”

In the midst of this transformation, the smart phone has played a major role in spreading GIS capabilities across organizations and their customer bases. 

“Smart mobile phones have radically changed how both consumers and businesses use GIS systems,” said Bruno Fernandez-Ruiz, co-founder and CTO of Nexar, which develops software to protect individuals and businesses against car crashes and road casualties. “The marriage of GPS and cellular modems in the form of a phone have made location services available to the mass market, resulting in unprecedented use of geospatial data in applications and the appearance of completely new business processes that can only be done in the field, such as surveying a car crash site.”

The new GIS “System of Systems”

With GIS enablement occurring across software and devices and central GIS management systems being hosted in the cloud, GIS is fast becoming a “system of systems.”

“Organizations can share geospatial layers and analytic results within their enterprise and with other organizations as web layers,” said Cross. “They are also taking advantage of cloud and web services, smart phones, and apps to facilitate these connections like never before.”

At the same time, the proliferation of data coupled with the rapid velocities of Internet of Things (IoT) and big data have caused GIS to emerge as a powerful big data analytics management tool because it looks at data in its geographic context and can use sophisticated algorithms to make sense of that data.

“The increasing availability of real-time information means that GIS is now a live, interactive, fully integrated component of an organization receiving and sending data as it happens,” said Cross. “The proliferation of sensors and devices that are always on and receiving data create immediate understanding of operational awareness and provide up-to-the minute decision support.”

Just as importantly, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning have extended the capabilities of GIS analytics.

“We actually see three interrelated technologies playing a key role in changing how geospatial data is captured, collected, analyzed and published,” said Fernandez-Ruiz. “With more Internet of Things devices, including mobile devices, it’s now possible to capture all the time, any data, and anywhere. All this data can be crunched and structured thanks to the progress of big data analytics. And not only that, we can now apply advanced Artificial Intelligence and deep learning techniques to automatically extract insights from these vast amounts of data.”

GIS in Action

Nowhere is GIS more impactful than in the successful use cases that have given it prominence.

In real estate, GIS was first used to locate ideal sites for brick and mortar stores. Now, GIS is used for targeting consumer markets, measuring sales results through online, physical retail and other sale channels, protecting corporate security and assets, managing assets, and even indoor mapping.

“One example is combining GIS with AI to enable retailers to effectively predict customer behavior,” said Cross. “With GIS, you can create maps and information about the ways that consumers in a particular area have behaved over time in order to make better-informed decisions about how to stock inventory in different locations. Another example involves helping a retailer open a new store using location-based demographic data and advanced algorithms that identify ideal locations. Location intelligence allows them to see where a new store will perform better, and how they can customize their marketing and sales strategy to the surrounding area to increase their overall effectiveness.”

Nexar’s Fernandez-Ruiz recounts how cities are taking advantage of new GIS technologies and integration in order to monitor traffic and streets.

“By leveraging a large network of drivers constantly roaming the cities and equipped with dash cams, cities are able to crowd-source at large scale the capture and collection of real-time imagery from the roads,” he said. “These images are completely anonymized…. The high number of daily repeated visits to any street in the city by this network of drivers allows cities to observe the same road features from multiple points of view across the day. A hybrid Artificial Intelligence solution is then used to structure and analyze all these frames. As a final result, a real-time map of all the objects on and around the road is developed. This allows cities to understand change as it happens, such as when a sign disappears, when a traffic light starts malfunctioning, or when a pothole develops.”

For construction zone detection and monitoring, GIS technology is used to identify when and where new road blockages due to construction happen, also predicting impact and alerting traffic management centers.

Best Practices for Organizations 

Leveraging GIS for business advantage begins with an organization-wide geospatial strategy.

“This means considering all the impacts the business can have while utilizing the total current and evolving GIS capabilities that are available to it,” said Cross. “It begins with thinking about what business outcomes need to be achieved, and where spatial thinking and technology can change the organization for the better.”

One key is creating an internal GIS support team that can advise on best business uses and also provide technology implementation and assistance in the different applications of GIS, such as mapping, dashboards, smart phones, IoT sensors and analytics.

A second key is identifying GIS solutions with open architectures that can easily be integrated with a company’s existing and anticipated technology bases.

Most importantly, new GIS capability is going to transform your business and also the work processes that employees are accustomed to—and companies must be cognizant of this.

“Some key questions to ask are whether a company’s workforce is ready for the changes that need to be implemented. Does it have the cloud or on-premises infrastructure to support digital transformation? And are its outcomes and success criteria defined?” said Cross. “When these parameters are met, organizations can more rationally and in a focused way achieve their desired impacts and results.”