In the past, when a customer ordered home delivery from St-Hubert Bar-B-Q, the Quebec-based restaurant chain, order takers had to shuffle through printed maps to find where the customer lived, and then assign the nearest outlet to prepare the meal and send it out.
Now, a sophisticated geographic information system incorporates the customer's address into an electronic map, automatically assigning the order to the appropriate outlet while taking into account road construction or other obstacles to delivery. The result: quicker, more efficient delivery, and increased productivity in the restaurants.
Meanwhile, at home products retailer Rona Inc., an electronic mapping system is helping the company pinpoint where to deliver its flyers across the country. The system merges and analyzes city maps, Statistics Canada data and customer information to guide the distribution of different combinations of flyers and inserts, customized for the neighbourhoods surrounding Rona's 630 stores.
The use of electronic maps is one example of how companies across Canada are turning to technology as they strive to become more productive. With Canadian business under pressure to boost output amid warnings from Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney that our standard of living is at risk in an era of intense global competition, firms are discovering that investments in innovative information systems can provide quick and substantial payoffs.
Mapping systems, for instance, integrate physical information with complex databases of constantly updated statistics, and can improve productivity at institutions across the country, including governments, hospitals and utilities, as well as private companies. "I think it is critical," said Alex Miller, president of ESRI Canada Ltd., a Toronto-based consultant in geographic information systems (GIS). "Every government and every business needs to know where things are, where people are, how processes work, and how you get from here to there."
Maps have been used for centuries to guide business ventures - for instance, mapping of the northwest played a key role as the Hudson's Bay Co. traded for furs. But the more recent combination of maps with electronic databases and Web-based technology is opening new frontiers.
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Canadians have been leaders in the field for 50 years, Mr. Miller said. In fact, geographic information systems were pioneered in Canada in the 1960s to improve the analysis of the country's agricultural land.
Advances in computers in the 1970s and 1980s allowed immense amounts of data to be merged with geographic information, essentially creating electronic versions of old fashioned "overlays" on physical maps, but with far more detail. Resource industries became big users of this technology for exploration and planning.
Now, even faster computers and Internet technology have extended potential uses for route planning, network design, or almost any application where a company needs to know where its products, vehicles or workers are located. The price of a GIS system can range from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands.
Increasingly, real-time data is being added to GIS systems. Sears was a pioneer in developing a GIS system in the 1990s that integrated order entry, packing, dispatch and truck routing to vastly improve the efficiency of appliance deliveries, Mr. Miller said. Now the retailer has further improved its system by adding real-time data on road closures and accidents, to help its trucks avoid slow-downs in major cities in North America.
Utilities are among the most innovative GIS users. The city of Guelph's hydro utility uses an electronic map system that links subscriber billing data, locations of hydro infrastructure, and staff reporting. The system helps dispatch repair crews to sites of power failures, and allows those workers to file inspection reports from the field. It even incorporates current information on lightning strikes from the Weather Network to help guide decisions.
Often, the greatest productivity gains from mapping happen in government agencies, Mr. Miller said, because those institutions have databases full of information and are already making wide use of maps in their planning.
Private companies, by contrast, usually have lots of information on their own operations, but less access to broader market data. Now, however, many are learning to incorporate data from loyalty programs, the census, or survey information.
At Rona, for example, the flyer distribution system makes use of customer data gleaned from the Air Miles loyalty program, said marketing manager Marco Mercier. That information links postal codes with purchase amounts. When combined with other socio-economic data it helps to paint a picture of customer spending around each store.
Mr. Mercier said Rona is taking what it has learned from the initial flyer-delivery application and applying it to other projects. The same data now helps the company decide where to locate new stores, based on the market potential of various neighbourhoods.
In the coming years, Mr. Miller said, businesses may make further productivity gains by linking their GIS systems directly with customers. As individuals get more comfortable with iPhones and other electronic devices, information flowing back and forth between companies and their customers could provide a rich source of data to create even more detailed electronic maps.
Canada's data drought
Canada was once on the leading edge of electronic mapping, but has fallen behind the United States because it is harder for Canadian companies to get access to some of the data used to create geographic information systems.
ESRI Canada president Alex Miller said U.S. access-to-information rules make it easier and cheaper to get public data, such as information on road networks or census figures.
In Canada, the federal government's move to eliminate the mandatory long-form census is a further setback for the GIS industry - and for improvements in productivity, he said.
"We are really upset about the long form census being dropped because it is a tremendous source of all kinds of information that fuels geographic analysis of all kinds of things," he said. "Banking, insurance, retail and manufacturing - they all use this extensively to try to improve productivity. I just can't imagine a more short-sighted view."
GIS wins converts across sectors
How various sectors are using geographic information systems (GIS):
Banks: Banks use electronic mapping for many purposes, including ensuring that their mortgages are not concentrated in a small number of neighbourhoods. A GIS can also help measure a branch's financial performance by comparing profits from branches in neighbourhoods with similar demographics.
Insurance: Some insurance companies use GIS to map floodplains and other areas of risk. This helps them to set rates and to decide who can get coverage.
Community services: Agencies that dispatch home care workers or nurses use GIS to plan routes for their staff. Efficient travel between clients can mean reduced costs and more patients getting access to home care.
Manufacturers: Although this sector has been slower to adopt mapping systems, some manufacturers are using GIS to map large factories, showing at a glance what materials are moving into the building, what processes are taking place inside, and how the finished products are emerging.
Airports: A big-city airport is like a small city, and electronic maps can help control lighting, navigation systems, security needs, and the movement of people and vehicles.
Hospitals: GIS can map all the expensive equipment in a hospital, with each piece marked with an electronic tag. Electronic maps may also help keep track of infections as they spread through a hospital.