Think Spatial I wanted to follow on from my post looking at GIS in the context of BIM projects by now taking a look at spatial data in the wider organisational information structure. To support both OPEX and CAPEX activities I want to talk about encouraging a philosophy of “Think Spatial”. By this I mean:

  • Strive to use spatial data for the benefit of the whole business;
  • Demonstrate quantifiable, tangible benefits of being geo-enabled. The challenge here to GIS professionals is to ensure they speak the language of business, i.e. specific benefits of spatial information to the business;
  • Ensuring that system architectures are developed to incorporate spatial data as a core attribute entity;
  • Ensuring GIS data is not in separate ‘silo’ systems;
  • Think Spatial should encourage a holistic approach to capturing, storing, analysing and interrogating all business information from source systems, where the spatial “where” layer is a core attribute within corporate systems.

The rapidly changing business data landscape is rapidly driving changes in the storage and exploitation of data. This leaves GIS professionals wrangling with our old problem of how we promote the utilisation of spatial information in our organisations – getting them to Think Spatial – to ensure that spatial data sits in heart of our organisation.

The “pull” for spatial data by users and customers only grows over time. Whether that’s through smart apps on phones which pinpoint assets and customers (Uber, Just Eat, Laundrapp to name just a tiny few), or to understand where your assets are and the factors which may affect their condition or performance (number of trains over a specific section of track, and weather conditions that can impact the condition of the track asset, or the operational service performance of a section of line). The need and the opportunity to understand “where” and Think Spatial is greater than it has ever been.

Historically, the problem has been that organisations implemented corporate databases and systems across their architecture, and then additional, separate, GIS databases and systems. As GIS users, sure, you might have used a “table join” to connect this data together locally and analyse it. You might have created a “view” that joined corporate information. But you had to do that, because we were not making geometry a core attribute (column) right at the heart of our data. We had to improvise, make local copies/joins/views. This was partially down to traditional IT functions in organisations not really understanding spatial data, but equally, GIS professionals rather liked being “special” and having our very own environment just for us.

My key point for this post is that GIS cannot afford to remain as a side-line activity, and that spatial attribution should be a core part of your organisation’s data. We have moved beyond the days of a few desktop instances of a GIS package, using some locally stored “special” spatial data to perform some Business Analysis functions. GIS is still a specialist tool, but the business data analysed within this tool usually comes from across the spectrum of business systems, and for effective business operations we should be encouraging spatial attributes to be at the heart of core systems – GIS might be for the few, but spatial data is for the many. I will expand on this phrase more in a follow-up blog. But the widespread use of spatial data (not in a GIS) is reflected in the way we interact with Big Data and use our smart phones today. Smart devices ensure that “where” is absolutely critical in how we interact with one another and use services (Google, in order to find the nearest restaurant to our particular taste, for example). For an enterprise to truly gain value from all their data, they need to Think Spatial and capitalise on this capability. Perhaps a simplistic architecture that helps an organisation Think Spatial looks a little something like this: EA GIS diagram 1

 What is important here from a GIS perspective is that GIS acts as a tool (one of many, potentially) to manage master data within the data environment. In this instance, GIS isn’t simply for creating a map in a desktop application, it’s a core data management function. This enables an organisation to Think Spatial, use spatial as a core attribute, and reap the benefits of an integrated spatial approach.  How can this be achieved? Perhaps the diagrams below offer a couple of (simplistic) options:
EA GIS master spatial EA GIS integrated spatial
In the master spatial DB approach, the “where” layer of data can be used to join across multiple systems/sources within the Enterprise Architecture (EA), and should simplify exports into the data warehouse (with geometry acting like a unique ID). In the integrated approach (most likely the next level of implementation) each system has the ability to store spatial information natively – this is where an enterprise is truly Thinking Spatial.
In reality, of course, your organisation needs to tailor its implementation to best align with your requirements and/or circumstances. But both GIS professionals and system/EA architects should be trying to Think Spatial in order get the most from all corporate systems and business activities, and therefore enable the business to realise greater benefits from their data. If not, your organisation may risk being left behind the competition. So, how can you help your organisation be ready to Think Spatial?
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