Businesses plot future with GIS mapping technology

Geographic information systems (GIS) have traditionally been used by municipalities to map property information and public works projects, but the technology is becoming more popular among businesses.

The technology allows users to plot data in layers over maps to demonstrate trends or densities, from the concentration of a chemical in a body of water to the likelihood of an earthquake in a particular area.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee recently hosted GIS Day, a local celebration of an international event that has been held since 1999 to share GIS projects and knowledge.

This year’s focus was GIS from a business user’s perspective, said Bill Huxhold, chair of the UWM GIS Council, which plans the annual conference.

“There are GIS efforts throughout the major retailers,” Huxhold said. “There are all kinds of different applications in the private sector that can really benefit from GIS.”

Western Lime, a lime mining company based in West Bend, uses GIS technology. The company buys aerial photos of its seven quarries in Wisconsin and then plots data to determine how much rock and lime has been removed from each site over time.

From that information, Western Lime is able to accurately bill contractors for the exact amount of material removed from a site.

The company also uses GIS to plot quarry size expansion, considering wetlands, zoning, parcels and other factors, said Mindy Ochs, environmental and regulatory director.

Before GIS was in use, mapping was a manual process using a physical aerial photo from the county.

“What takes now maybe an hour or two would have been done by hand on a piece of photocopy paper that looked really bad,” she said. “To get that level of quality would have taken much longer.”

Deerfield-based Walgreen Co. also uses GIS technology, in its health care planning and research department. Rob Glazier, manager of health care planning and research at Walgreens, was the keynote speaker at UWM’s GIS Day on November 16.

The company maps out potential store locations, determining how many patients are in the area, the proximity to doctors’ offices, how close it would be to a competitor’s store and what kind of transportation is available nearby.

“So much of what we’re trying to do is related to questions about ‘where,'” Glazier said. “Where are patients, where are stores, where are clinics, where do we see the demand?”

The GIS mapping makes it easier to visualize data, rather than looking at charts and graphs, Glazier said. His GIS team can also come up with quantifiable metrics — like the percentage of employees within two miles of a Walgreens location — using distance calculations on the maps.

“When we put a new store on a corner, there’s a lot of GIS behind the scenes,” Glazier said.

He also mentioned employment opportunities to UWM students in the school’s GIS Certificate Program.

“There are a lot of students in the GIS program at UWM and I don’t know that a GIS student always recognizes that there are a lot of jobs in the private sector for people with this skill set,” he said.

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