Adding a Physical Dimension To Corporate Data
What is Spatial Data?
Everything has a place and exists at a location. In other words, everything has geography. A building, a property, even electric transmission lines all exist at identifiable locations. And similar to other information, geographic attributes can be stored, queried, and analyzed. These attributes refer to an object's occupation of space, and geographic data are therefore "spatial". That is where the spatial component of data begins.
Although spatial data describes an object's "place," this isn't of real value unless an object can be referenced in relation to other objects. For example, a road map isn't helpful unless you know where you are on the map relative to the roads. Spatial data references an object's geography relative to other "knowns" using measurements such as coordinates and distance. Spatial data is therefore most relevant when "identifying and analyzing objects, especially in relation to others."
Why is Spatial Data Important?
From market segmentation and retail location analysis to urban planning and service and facility support, geography is important in many different ways. The traditional approach used to be "build it and they will come", but knowledge and experience has shown that it's not just what you build that matters so much as where it's at.
Traditionally non-competing companies (e.g. utilities such as electrical or gas) have spatial data in the form of network models (e.g. switches, valves, poles, transformers, pipelines) that allows them to manage, maintain, and deliver their products.
However, today's business information needs are dynamic. With deregulation, privatization, and competition issues now facing the same utility companies, spatial information on:
has become much more valuable an asset. That's why it's important to recognize current and potential data that are relevant to your needs, and that includes spatial data.
Technology for Spatial Data Management and Analysis
Many tools are available for analyzing spatial data, and technology has made it easier to perform quicker, more detailed, and more sophisticated spatial data manipulations and analyses.
There are three basic streams of technology that provide access to spatial data: CAD (Computer Aided Design), AM/FM (Automated Mapping/Facilities Management), and GIS (Geographic Information Systems). Each tool has its respective purpose, functionality, and strengths. However the boundaries between these tools are now somewhat blurry so a review of their fundamentals is in order:
A CAD (Computer Aided Design) package is a tool used for inputting and managing graphic data, usually with a very high degree of locational accuracy. Although this software is versatile (e.g. engineering design), in the context of spatial data and technologies its primary purpose has been to build accurate map-based models.
Common examples of CAD software packages are Bentley or Intergraph's MicroStation, Autodesk's AutoCAD, and EngHouse's CableCAD. Each has its own tools and writes its own data format, but all can create and manage detailed drawings complete with aspects such as coordinate georeferencing (e.g. UTM or Lat/Long), map tiling (if required), and connectivity.
An AM/FM (Automated Mapping/Facilities Management) system expands on a CAD-type system by applying a set of rules to facilitate a more sophisticated data model. An AM/FM system is therefore primarily a data management tool where a rule base is used to automate map creation by enforcing aspects such as: connectivity laws (e.g. two objects can or can not be connected), spatial tolerances (e.g. minimum/maximum distances between objects), positioning (e.g. whether an object can be placed in a certain location), or attribute management (e.g. whether an object can have a value in a specified range).
Sophisticated AM/FM systems employ complex rule bases that streamline data management and ensure data integrity by enforcing these rules. For example, a design technician is only allowed to place a padmount transformer on a pad and not on a pole, or a customer information clerk can only choose the street type of a customer's address from a predefined abbreviation list (usually industry accepted) such as "St" for street.
A GIS (Geographic Information System) is a tool that empowers users to view and analyze spatial data. Compared to CAD or AM/FM technology, it is more of a data analysis tool than one for editing or management. A GIS' core competency is in the dissemination and analysis of data where the spatial component drives the effort. Spatial data calculations such as area overlays (e.g. map coincident locations of environmental sensitivity and industrial development), distances and location analysis (e.g. calculate minimum distances required between airport runways and residential dwellings using projected noise level maps), or linear or network analysis (e.g. create a real-time model of the flow of water in a distribution network) are a few examples of what a GIS is capable of.
The power behind a GIS is its versatility and ability to "mesh" different types of spatial data. For example, a GIS can determine the optimal route (trip) for each vehicle in a fleet, based on a list of customer service calls and a geocodable map of the street network. However a real-time GIS could also adjust these routes "on-the-fly" based on additional spatial data such as: current vehicle locations (e.g. through GPS), addresses for emergency service calls, and changes in product supply locations (alternate distribution centres for JIT or just-in-time delivery solutions).
The boundaries between these technologies are blurry, however most business solutions will encompass at least a part of each: CAD for its abilities in data collection, AM/FM for its strengths in data management, and GIS for its versatility in spatial data analyses. Knowing which combintaion is best suited for your needs is not an easy task, but the proper technology collusion could dramatically enhance your ability to harvest and exploit corporate data and provide a distinct competitive advantage.
Finding the Right Solution
At ExtenSys, we are dedicated to helping you develop your spatial data to its full potential - by supplying the customized technical knowledge, assistance and expertise that you need, where you need it. Our experience with spatial data and systems is extensive, and spans a great number of issues and technologies.
Data is only one component of an effective solution. We can work with you to identify your overall data, hardware, software, and resource needs, and bridge the knowledge gap to fulfil those requirements. In some instances, existing data sets and technologies may be adequate to getting you a viable solution, while in others a completely customized approach may be more relevant. We can offer assistance in the conversion and implementation of existing and new systems. And we can help your staff get up to speed quickly through training, seminars, custom documentation, and hands-on experience.
For more information on Spatial Data and Technologies, contact Jim Stewart at (416) 481-1546