The term “geographic information systems,” or GIS, might seem to the uninitiated as yet another way to describe what cartographers do for a living. But Susan Wachter, professor of real estate and finance at Wharton, has a different perspective: “GIS has the potential both to improve private and public sector decision-making and to advance our understanding of place in the social sciences.”

GIS is a computer-based technology composed of hardware, software and data that is used to capture, display and analyze spatial data information. Used in more than 50 countries, GIS technology can create cost-effective and accurate solutions in an expanding range of applications. These applications include land use planning and tax assessment; management of natural resources and environmental analysis; transportation and logistics planning, and emergency and dispatch services. The private sector is increasingly adopting GIS as a way to improve performance and decision-making, at the same time as the business community is using public-sector-created geographic data. The use of GIS in the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks underscores the urgency of developing it as a national resource. To accomplish this, proponents say, input from business, academia and government organizations is critical.

As a step toward achieving this goal, Wachter convened a conference at Wharton on
August 21, 2002. Titled “The Expanding Role of GIS in Business and Government,” the conference included leaders from academia, government, non-profits and business organizations. Apart from exploring the many uses of GIS and the challenges ahead, the conference was a structured effort at achieving closer alignment between academic research institutions such as Wharton, and GIS data creators, users and government officials. It was designed also to visualize the road ahead for the Wharton GIS Lab, which does pioneering work in this field under the stewardship of Wachter, its founder and research director.


Business Solutions: The New Applications


Jack Dangermond, one of the foremost pioneers in the development of GIS technology, is founder and president of ESRI, a Redlands, Ca., company which delivers GIS-based solutions to governments and businesses throughout the globe. In his keynote address at the conference, Dangermond spoke of the growth in applications for GIS while citing business and government examples. The functionality of GIS is just beginning to be harnessed, he noted, adding that its application “is limited only by the imagination of those who use it.”  Dangermond unveiled a new software application developed by ESRI called “Whole Earth Visualization” that enables the user to view the planet, including land topography and natural features of continents, augmented by satellite images, and zoom in seamlessly to view a single home as well.


Eric Orts, Wharton professor of legal studies and director of the school’s Environmental Management Program, moderated a session that included six speakers from both business and government. Consultant Bill Wally demonstrated the practical use of GIS in his work with Chevron. GIS, for example, helped cut costs in oil transportation and locate new drilling locations, and enhanced the company’s compliance with federal standards for safety, all of which, Wally said, added to Chevron’s bottom line.


Warner Phelps, manager of environmental exposure assessment at Syngenta, demonstrated GIS cost saving efficiencies in his firm. Syngenta, a Swiss company specializing in crop protection, commercial seeds and sustainable agriculture, is using GIS simultaneously for mapping market research and distribution, and for environmental studies. “Mapping resistant weeds is a sales opportunity,” said Phelps.  With GIS, Syngenta has developed plant disease models that evaluate the likelihood of disease, map the result, and send early warning emails to customers.

Hal Reid presented new strategies for retail store development. He is currently working with Allied Domecq, a British company which makes wines and spirits (Ballantine’s and
Malibu are among its brands) and also operates chains of “quick service restaurants” such as Baskin Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts. Reid uses GIS technology for planning development and locations of Allied’s retail outlets. GIS helps his firm understand “where to develop and how to get there.”


GIS applications in the financial services industry can also deliver results, according to conference participants. Credit Union of Texas, for example, has seen its asset base grow at 45% annually in recent years. Jerry Thompson, senior vice president of the firm, discussed his company’s ability to leverage technology using GIS to identify and reach its best customers. He showed detailed maps incorporating different sets of data overlaid with geographic information to target desired customers. His objectives: to increase member satisfaction, stimulate member purchases, retain valuable members, increase member loyalty and most of all, reduce costs.

The single biggest user of GIS technology is the federal government. Alan Stevens, international program manager for the U.S. Federal Geographic Committee, talked about the government’s use of GIS in reducing crime, enhancing public safety, managing growth, improving accountability and protecting the environment. “What if there was a tool that could integrate data from diverse sources – and visually analyze data to support decision-making – many times faster than any other tool?” he asked, noting the immense potential of GIS in enhancing the quality of decisions made in business and government.


In a telling example of the potential of GIS for e-logistics, Stevens showed GIS at work. In the mid-1990s, North Carolina wanted to manage school buses more efficiently. Without GIS, it had a “hit-or-miss” route mapping, resulting in an inability to control costs. But with the use of GIS – mandated by the state in all districts in 1992 – the school system found it deployed 500 fewer buses in 1994-95, and 15 million fewer miles were driven than originally estimated. Stevens says that between 1990 and 1996, North Carolina saved more than two million gallons of fuel from this effort.

GIS and Homeland Security


The potential roles of GIS in homeland security are just beginning to be explored, as was discussed in the second panel. Moderator Harvey Rubin, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response (ISTAR), began discussion with an example of the epidemiological uses of GIS. By spatially integrating data on geopolitics, climate, and infectious diseases through the use of GIS, researchers were able to track and forecast outbreaks of Rift Valley Fever. Rubin espoused the importance of data collection on infectious diseases to be used in GIS to help track and contain outbreaks within the United States. He spoke of ISTAR’s potential relationship with the Wharton GIS lab in conducting research towards the goal of strategic threat analysis.


Bruce Cahan, president and co-founder of the non-profit Urban Logic in New York City, discussed the GIS suite of interoperability standards and compliant software and data anchoring applications in anti-terrorist support systems, disease tracking and mitigation (such as the West Nile virus, tuberculosis, cancer and anthrax). He also spoke about the regional integration of multiple users’ data to respond to disasters such as the World Trade Center attacks. After September 11, Cahan was part of a group created by New York’s director of citywide GIS, called the Emergency Mapping and Data Center, which used GIS to manage recovery logistics.


The chief geographer for the United States, Bob Marx, talked about the government’s role in providing broad spatial data, namely the TIGER database (Topographically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing). This database, which is open to the public, provides street maps for businesses, researchers and government officials that is critical for all location-based services. Marx cited the importance of the refinement of this data for increased efficiency and accuracy in the 2010 Census and the American Community Survey. He also stressed the importance of more effective geographic partnerships, especially with local governments, who generally have the most accurate and complete data sources for their area. 


The US Geological Survey’s Barbara Ryan reported on the formation of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). She cited the inefficiency of recreating data, and the benefits to agreeing on common standards and practices in order to facilitate spatial data sharing and integration. Ryan pointed to the power of partnerships within the government and between government and business in order to maintain current, accurate, and complete geospatial databases for the decision-making needs of all parties. 

Place-Based Solutions: Economic and Community Development


Felix Oberholzer-Gee, professor of business and public policy at Wharton, headed a session on applying GIS and spatial data infrastructure to local economic and community development. Tom Kingsley, director of the Urban Institute’s National Neighborhood Indicators Partnerships (NNIP), described GIS’s role in such issues as crime, property conditions, employment and education. He noted the work being done by the NNIP, which now has a dozen cities participating; another 24 are targeted. GIS technology comes in extremely handy here for “cross-site studies and to learn more about the dynamics of neighborhood change.” Panelist and consultant Andrew Reamer focused the session on the potential of community statistical networks for informing public policy change. Reamer spoke of the formation of a network of community statistical systems to facilitate the sharing and integration of data in ways that deal with the problems of data accuracy, security and compatibility. 

Cynthia Taeuber, representing the Bureau of the Census, presented her views on the benefits of the integration of local and federal data. As local communities begin to collect spatial data to increase efficiency, this data has the potential to be integrated into nationwide databases. Taeuber spoke of the problems associated with integration of these data sources. Data sampling errors, incomparabilities and sharing limitations all limit the implementation of community statistical systems. 


In the summary session, “Going Forward: Shaping the Research and Policy Agenda,” Wachter laid out a road map for future research. Highlighted topics included systematic research on return on investment on GIS across businesses, case studies on successful GIS enterprise solutions, and development of strategies for building the national spatial data infrastructure. It was suggested that Wharton could fill important teaching and research gaps and provide a center for the study of GIS and business.

After founding the Wharton GIS Lab in 1997, Wachter spent two-and-one-half years as assistant secretary of policy development and research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She resumed directorship of the GIS Lab in January 2001. The lab has GIS technicians and doctoral students working on research issues such as spatially-enhanced automation valuation models which can be used to re-price the value of mortgage portfolios.

According to Wachter, the synergies achieved by data sharing across private and public sectors will enhance business and private sector decision-making and contribute to an understanding of what works in the social and economic development of communities – a new frontier for business schools.


The conference received support from the Wharton Environmental Management Program, The Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response, the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, the Institute for Environmental Studies and the Ford Foundation.