There is a sense today that space and place don’t matter. After all, with digital technology, work and money can be disrupted around the world in seconds. In addition, recent months have seen working from home become more common than ever.
And yet, space and place do matter: every person is somewhere, and they are often trying to get something to or from somewhere else, or may themselves even need to get to another place. Place is so fundamental to our daily lives, in fact, that it occupies a contradictory space in our minds, as we obsessively calculate commute distances, square meterage and shipping times, while at the same time feeling like we could, if we wanted, be anywhere.
A variety of digital mapping systems are now part of everyday life, of course, but perhaps the most crucial is geographic information system (GIS).
“GIS is widely used but it’s not widely known,” said Dermot O’Kane, head of sales at mapping specialists Esri Ireland.
Esri Ireland’s range of applications, collected under the banner of ArcGIS, run the gamut of commercial and industrial uses for mapping, including working with customer data for sales and potential sales, field operations and planning and construction.
O’Kane said the key is providing the right information. As a result, the maps it produces are more than merely topographical drawings.
“It’s about the ‘where’ – knowing ‘where’ matters – and taking a spatial approach to business. Our canvas is a map,” he said.
“It’s all about answering the ‘where’ questions to help customers get insights into relationships that they couldn’t get through any other medium.”
Naturally, Esri’s client base includes some essential services. “Our proposition to customers is centred on the analytics that you perform that draw out insights from the maps. If you take a water utility, there are questions like where does the water come from, what happens to it. The entire water network for all of Ireland, North and South, is mapped using GIS, so the analytics can answer some very fundamental questions.”
Essential and emergency repairs, for example, are simplified and sped up with the combination of GIS and sophisticated analytics. In addition, a high level of integration and communication is supported.
“The job assignment happens within GIS. When an incident happens, in terms of crisis management that happens in the GIS application too,” said O’Kane.
Building the nation
Today, GIS is becoming core to a lot of national infrastructure projects, including people management and broadband, meaning maps really are more like a canvas or sketchpad for ideas rather than static representations. One end result is time and cost savings.
“A huge part of our growth has been in field information. Users can feed information to the back office, they don’t have to come in and out,” said O’Kane.
All of this information can be delivered via mobile networks, essential for fieldwork. “People in Ireland are using our mobile apps to deal with real problems. Previously you were printing stuff out and marking it up or else using a big, toughened laptop and trying to connect it.”
With large projects, of course, the ability of Esri’s apps to merge GIS with other data starts to make the map into an ever-closer representation of reality.
“The rollout of the national broadband is the largest project since electrification really, and GIS is at the heart of that, looking at existing infrastructure and what design needs to be put in place to deliver fibre.”
GIS also allows users to understand how the drawing board and reality interact, with field users able to use GIS to pinpoint the problems that may not be visible back in the office. “Ten times out of ten there is an issue with the design,” he said.
The value of data is clear: between 2015 and 2019 Esri has seen significant increases in Irish revenue, as more customers come to use its data – including to build their own map-based apps, something which does not even require a software developer. “It’s a huge, growing market,” said O’Kane.
The ongoing pandemic has also brought people and place, and the intersection of the two, into the limelight.
“GIS is also a crisis management system, so GIS comes to the forefront in a crisis. We’ve even seen it this year in terms of Covid. Johns Hopkins University’s Covid Dashboard is the front-end to a GIS system that everyone was relating to,” he said.
Locally, the analytics taking place in Ireland, in the form of the Ireland-Covid Datahub are also GIS-based. So too, naturally, are the traffic management and Garda checks.
“There are so many spatial aspects to life, to business and to government,” said O’Kane.
Industries and sectors well beyond utilities and government, though, can benefit – and with ‘no-code’ development, the deployment of bespoke, specialised apps means GIS and other relevant data will drive new business models.
“Things like real estate: helping to understand market trends or what is the potential of a site? It’s about software and professional services but also data. Where do people live? What’s the profile? Customer segmentation data. We’ve also got human movement data.”