Geographical Information Systems in Business Research Paper Starter

Geographical Information Systems in Business

This article examines the growing use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in business for operations management and decision making activities. The basic functions of GIS are reviewed and other technologies that GIS can be integrated with to create new applications are explained. Industries that are using GIS applications that have resulted in energy savings and reduced emissions are examined. Concerns about privacy protection and laws that govern the use of data that GIS and related technologies can produce are also reviewed.

Keywords: Ecotourism; Fleet Management; Geographical Information Systems (GIS); Global Positioning System (GPS); Intelligent Transportation Systems; In-vehicle Navigation Systems; Precision Farming; Privacy Laws; Radio Frequency Identification (RFID); Spatial Analysis; Urban Planning; Visualization


Geographical Information Systems (GIS) were once the tools of scientists and geographers but have rapidly become a valuable tool for operations management and decision-making in several industries (Rob, 2003). The ability to integrate GIS technology with other technologies including the Geographic Positioning System (GPS), cell phones, mobile computing devices, and Radio Frequency Identification Tags (RFID), has helped expand the use of GIS (Chan & Williamson, 1999; "GPS and GIS," 2003).

These technologies have been integrated to help create tools for use in logistics management, transportation services, and natural resources management (Rob, 2003; Zamaraev, Oparin, Popov, Potapov, & Pyastunovich, 2008). Applications have also been developed for public utilities design and management (Acharya & Kaufholz, 2008), health care (Foody, 2006), marketing, agriculture, financial services and banking, urban planning (Roman, 2006), and even the insurance industry (Chan & Williamson, 1999; Hildreth, 2007). Military operations are also being aided with a wide array of GIS applications (Pincevicius, Baušys, & Jankauskas, 2005).

The Basic Functions of GIS

GIS provides three core abilities that can be integrated or combined with other computer-based or computer-supported applications:

  • The ability to manage data within a spatial framework,
  • To perform spatial analyses of the relationship between data elements within the framework, and
  • Present the results of the analysis in a visual manner (Chan & Williamson, 1999).

Spatial Analysis

GIS data is maintained by sets of spatial data that can be used to depict layers on a map. There can be, for example, a layer for rivers, a layer for roads, and a layer for zip codes within each geographical boundary. A layer can consist of one or several different features, which are shown on map including points, lines, or boundaries (Rob, 2003).

The management of spatial data is performed through a database function. Database technology has been used in information systems for several decades. In traditional database applications, such as one that provides inventory management for a department store, there is a record for every item purchased or sold by the store. The status of that item along with descriptions, prices, universal product codes, and other information is stored in the database. In GIS the records in the database represent points in a geographical area along with geographic attributes and descriptors of other characteristics of the points.

Spatial analysis is performed by analyzing the relationship between various geographic points in the database. In the past many people relied heavily on printed paper maps to show streets or the topography of a geographical area. They would mentally combine the information on the map with knowledge from other sources including personal experience with the area, or written or verbal instructions on how to navigate to a specific location. This was typically how an individual would personally visualize how to accomplish their goal. With GIS, the combining of data and visualization is performed by the system.

In numerous situations map-based presentations of GIS data is the most effective way to format and present information in a readily usable form because maps are easier to interrupt than tables or charts. GIS can also provide various cartographic functions including automatic symbolization based on values of data, automatic text placement, contouring, or surface fitting. In addition some advanced GIS applications can even provide three-dimensional mapping ability for multiple dimensional data (Li, Kong, Pang, Shi, & Yu, 2003).

In GIS spatial analysis is performed by combining a wide variety of data sets that provide information for every geographic point in the system. However, the key to making the analysis of several data sets useful is to present the results in a visual manner and again, a map is one of the most popular forms of visualization. In-vehicle navigation systems combine GIS with other enabling technologies. This combination supports navigation with a map shown on a small computer screen along with additional information that helps drivers navigate or find a specific address (Devillers, Bedard, Jeansoulin, & Moulin, 2007).

Companies that have the need to manage high-intensity and high-volume logistics operations were among the first to push GIS beyond its basic geographical analysis abilities. The Corporate Transportation Department of Champion International and Federal Express (FedEx) both faced such challenges and in the 1990s started implementing GIS solutions for logistics management. These applications and the companies that pioneered them helped to push GIS into more widespread use and establish the need for people trained in GIS disciplines (Gates, 1997).


Energy Conservation

GIS is used in numerous natural resource management operations both by government agencies and private companies. As GIS applications were expanded, analysts found many ways in which GIS tools could be used to accomplish planning, management, and control activities. Many of these efforts also resulted in the conservation of energy, reduced emissions, an overall reduction in the environmental impact of human activity and thus the protection of natural resources (Zeng & Zhou, 2001).

Reducing Gasoline Consumption

GIS combined with GPS technology can help fleet managers minimize drive time, reduce fuel expenditures, and save on vehicle wear and tear (Feldman & Feldman, 2006). In addition automated vehicle location systems have allowed fleet managers to track the location of vehicles and provide decision support for dispatching the vehicle to a new location with both speed and accuracy (Faghri & Hamad, 2002; Al-Bayari & Sadoun, 2005).

GIS/GPS technologies have been useful in collecting, storing, and analyzing data to help manage congestion on city streets and highways (Imran, Hassan, & Patterson, 2006). However, the development of accurate GIS/GPS travel-time forecasting applications is especially complex and requires that spatial analysis simultaneously using many geospatial variables (You & Kim, 2007).

Urban planners, road builders, and public utility managers can also use GIS applications to help them plan, construct, and maintain systems that are essential to support complex national infrastructures (Frenzel, 2001). Planning can be made more effective, construction costs can be reduced and still support the implementation of more effective systems, and maintenance efforts can be made more efficient (Hasse, 2004). All of these things combined can help reduce fuel consumption and thus undesirable vehicle emissions (McCamic, 2003; Pedersen, 2004; Cobbs, 2006; Aishibani, 2008; Carlson, 2008).

In addition, GIS can assist developers in determining the optimum location of retail stores, bank branches, restaurants, and other service facilities to serve the maximum number of customers at the lowest costs. This helps the developers to select locations but it also aides the consumer by reducing their required travel time and fuel consumption to obtain the services they are seeking (Rubinstein, 1998; Byrom, 2001; Miliotis, Dimopoulou, & Giannikos, 2002).

The urban traveler can also benefit from GIS applications that help to personally navigate. In-vehicle navigation systems have become popular accessories in delivery vehicles as well as private automobiles. Along with smart cars, many large cities are also developing smart highways, or intelligent transportation systems (ITS) that monitor and manage traffic flow (Wood, 1996; Wilbur, 1998). This type of technology-based advanced traffic management system (ATMS) has helped to reduce congestion as well as fuel consumption (Banasiak, 1998). ATMS can also help commuters save considerable travel time (Ashley, 1998). In addition, the combination of smart cars and smart highways can help reduce accidents and help keep automobile insurance rates lower (Thompson, 2009)

Physically impaired people can access maps that indicate the least obstructed route in an urban area when moving in a wheelchair. These applications can reduce their travel time and fuel consumption and decrease frustration and anxiety when traversing urban environments (Beale, Field, Briggs, Picton, & Matthews, 2006).

Precision Farming Saves Energy

Through the integration of GIS, GPS, and other technologies, applications have been developed to make agricultural business operations more efficient and more cost effective. Farmers can produce more crops through the use of precision cultivating, planting, fertilizing, pest control, and harvesting methods. Precision farming methods also use less energy (Roberson, 2007; Xiangjian & Gang, 2007).

In the planting process, it is important to place the proper number of seeds per row foot. Precision farming equipment aids in planting seeds by controlling the amount of seed dispensed based on the previous year's yield from a specific part of the field (Roberson, 2007). When the harvest is done, a yield monitor is used to record the harvest for every foot of the field and data is put back into the GIS database for analysis and to guide future seeding and fertilizing activities (Yancy, 2005).

To determine the best application of pesticide and fertilizer products agronomists have generally sampled soil at selected locations in crop fields to develop an average fertilizer level for the field. New precision farming technologies enable farmers to go beyond an average fertilizer application by developing a GIS/GPS-based grid pattern of the field and testing each grid. Then appropriate levels of fertilizer are applied to improve crop yield at a more precise level. This reduces the consumption of fertilizer in some areas and increases it in other areas of the field in order to have a maximum yield (Joyce, 2003; Cline, 2005).

Ecotourism Supported by GIS/GPS Technologies

Ecotourism provides numerous opportunities for people to travel to destinations that offer both geographical and wildlife viewing opportunities and can help to support the preservation of these areas ("What is Ecotourism?" 2009). Ecotourism is the fastest growing subsection of tourism, expanding to almost 35 percent per year since the 1990s and is projected to see over 1.5 billion international ecotravelers by 2020 (Agrawal, 2012). Ecotourism is growing at three times the rate of the tourism sector as a whole. This is requiring more knowledgeable workers to sustain the growth trends and computer technology skills have become very valuable in the field (Guteleber, Query, Knoblauch, Belli, & Hirsch, 2007).

GIS combined with other technology supports the development and ongoing management of Ecotourism enterprises by allowing staff to locate, track, and visually display the location of wildlife activity. Ecotourists and their guides can be directed to areas where the most activity is taking place as animals congregate or migrate. This approach reduces the consumption of fuel while maximizing exposure for the Ecotourist and minimize travel into wildlife habitats (Lai, Li, Chan, & Kwong, 2007).


Seeking Privacy in a Spatially Analyzed World

Like many other communications and computing technologies, GIS has been disparaged as a technology that can be used to invade personal privacy (Curtis, Mills, & Leitner, 2006; Klinkenberg, 2007). Database systems have made it easy to compile and store vast amounts of information about people; their buying habits, their incomes and jobs, and even their hobbies. A large amount of these types of data are used in market analysis or in marketing efforts. This data is tracked from consumer behavior. The average person with one or more credit cards leaves a trail of information every time they use a card. When GIS are added to the technology arsenal, data analysts can amass data from many sources and perform spatial analysis and create a new view of communities, social groups, families, and individuals (Cromley, Cromley, & Ye, 2004).

Data that can be used in GIS applications can come from a wide variety of sources, public and private ("Privacy!" 2001). Many governments have defined the conditions under which government agencies can create and disseminate spatial data. Essentially, government agencies have created a market place of unregulated monopoly suppliers of spatial data. There may very well be a struggle for power surrounding the development of data sets as well as the ownership of the new information services between agencies and national governments around the world. There also may be problems in the future in protecting sensitive information in those databases (Pollard, 2000). Much of this data can be used very constructively but it is important to protect privacy while still performing useful research for policy making, planning, or operations management (McLafferty, 2004).

Privacy advocates have worked for decades to make their case about the protection of personal information and data. Over the last decade the warnings of privacy advocates have been realized as several large companies have had their computer systems hacked and data on millions of people have been compromised (Gilbert, 2007). One very dramatic case involved eleven perpetrators who allegedly hacked nine major retailers in the United States and stole over 40 million credit and debit card numbers (Brannen, 2008).

Privacy and the protection of privacy is not equally assured or enforced around the world. In the European Union (EU) privacy is a fundamental human right (Pierson, 2009). France, Germany, and the United Kingdom were pioneers in establishing national policies to protect privacy in the high-tech age. The EU established requirements for member countries as well as prospective members in the middle 1990s. Many countries around the world have followed the EU's requirements. However, the United States has taken a considerably limited approach the protection of privacy (Cooper, 2009).

At the Federal level in the United States there are several laws that were enacted to protect the privacy of different types of data. These include the...

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