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Business finding geospatial applications necessity, not luxury

Just a few short years ago, geospatial technology was largely an unknown commodity in the business community. Many of those who knew the basics of geospatial products and services saw them as tools for farmers and foresters only. And those that understood that geospatial applications extend well past agriculture and forestry saw them as a luxury, not a necessity.

However, that is rapidly changing, according to Lisa Stone, acting director of the Enterprise for Innovative Geospatial Solutions (EIGS). The science has not quite reached the common-knowledge stage yet, but the business community, as well as economic developers, are turning more and more to the geospatial industry to answer complex questions quicker and more effectively.

“It is not only forestry and agriculture that utilizes geospatial information, but the military, even recreation,” Stone said. “It has uses on the every day level, and several of our companies are developing software especially for economic development.”

Silver lining

The reason for the growing acceptance and appreciation for geospatial products and services are many. Groups such as the EIGS and the Mississippi Technology Alliance (MTA) deserve credit for educating the general public and business community on its applications and benefits.

Also, the science has gotten a lift in popularity for its non-business uses. Hunters and golfers are using global positioning systems (GPS) to help pinpoint where to find game animals or what club to select to get the ball closer to the hole. And, the motoring public has seen the advantages GPS offers when on the road.

However, Stone said it was bad times, not good, that really put geospatial applications on the minds of the general public as well as the business community. After Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, the devastation was so widespread that many communities struggled with where to begin. Where were the greatest needs, and what resources should be focused there to overcome the daunting challenges of rebuilding? Enter the geospatial industry, which offered solutions that only it could provide.

“I hate to say it, but Hurricane Katrina was huge for the geospatial industry. You can’t underestimate what Katrina did,” Stone said. “We spent years trying to show local communities what a powerful resource geospatial information is. After Katrina, these communities saw it first hand. Pre-Katrina, communities saw geospatial as an extra, something that would be nice to have. Now, they see it as a necessity.”

The geospatial industry was involved in disaster response even before Katrina. In June 2005, NVision Solutions, an EIGS member based at the Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, entered a strategic agreement with FirstCall Network Inc. to create an integrated solution for emergency management and homeland security. The partnership created REACT (Real-time Emergency Action Coordination Tool) that utilizes geographic databases and advanced computer models for crisis preparation, management and recovery.

Just days after the storm, Galileo Group Inc. and Jackson-based Forest One Inc., which recently executed a merger and is now known as Lanworth Inc., partnered to assist in recovery by offering response mapping, remote sensing and geospatial information services.

Lanworth, along with the MTA and other geospatial and high-tech businesses, also introduced the TechFix Mississippi Program, designed to help Mississippi small businesses rebuild their technology infrastructure following Katrina.

Building momentum

Geospatial applications have continued to broaden since Katrina. The economic development community is becoming more and more reliant on geospatial information as a tool to bring new business and jobs into communities. The technology offers an effective way to identify available land and other resources so as to attract prospects to an area.

A good example is TaiMap. TaiMap is a product developed through a joint effort between Taiamerica Management Company and NVision. It is a Web-based decision support system designed to enhance a community’s ability to conduct economic development activities. Users gain a technological advantage and Internet presence that increases their attraction to key parties such as site selectors, property developers as well as businesses and industries.

“What geospatial information offers, among other things, is a way to identify the highest and best use of land,” Stone said, “and that has applications beyond agriculture, including economic development.”

The geospatial industry itself is a job creator. Stone said trying to get a handle on the impact of the state’s total geospatial industry is difficult because many are small companies, and some companies use geospatial to varying degrees, but it is not necessarily their primary focus. Thus, industry numbers in Mississippi are near impossible to define.

However, Stone does have numbers for EIGS’ members. The most recent data (July 2005-August 2006) show the EIGS with 30 member companies that employ roughly 620 workers between them. They may not sound like many, but the average annual salary among those workers is $55,000, and almost all of the positions require a college degree, many doctorates. The state is really focused now on bringing more high-tech, high-paying jobs into Mississippi, and geospatial companies certainly meet that definition.

Formed in 1998, the EIGS’ mission is to nurture the growth of a cluster of high-tech companies in the geospatial technology industry statewide. Stone said the organization would continue to promote the industry to the business community and beyond using the slogan “Everyday Solutions for Everyday Business.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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