Mapping: the unexpected solution to business problems in financial services sector

Most people would be hard-pressed to explain what “geospatial data” is, but chances are: they are using it in their daily lives.

July 25, 2012

Most people would be hard-pressed to explain what “geospatial data” is, but chances are: they are using it in their daily lives. From location-aware mobile tools to satellite imagery such as Google Maps or GPS driving directions, we are using geospatial data for a number of purposes every single day.

Geospatial data refers to information associated with a particular location – simply put, anything that can be put on a map. The volume of data is exploding, and technological advances have allowed businesses to store, catalogue, and display the information for business or personal purposes. Companies who are able to use this data effectively have a significant competitive advantage – particularly in the financial services sector.

Organisations like the World Bank have been using geospatial data for their projects surrounding the effects of climate change, urbanisation, public health and land use. This enables teams to view all other Bank projects in their country or region of interest and access historic information about the environmental and human living conditions in that particular area. All teams can view data at any time, regardless of the time zone. This enables the organisation to make informed decisions regarding loans and relief across different territories.

Geospatial data (through Geographic Information Systems, or GIS) has also come to forefront in South Africa, as the advancement in communication and need for dissemination of financial information and services have had a keen impact on the banking industry in particular. In order to remain market driven and responsive, banks require up-to-date, detailed information about their customers and markets, as well as a platform for effective planning, organising and decision-making.

“GIS can provide any company with the ability to conduct market and competitor analysis, identify customers, plan for expansion, or to simply manage their assets,” Mike Steyn, of Aspire Solutions explains.

The increase of competition, as well as the popularity of mobile and internet banking, means that banks are under extreme pressure to perform. “GIS can provide the answers to important questions in this industry,” Steyn says. “Banks can use it to conduct site selection for new branches or ATMs, for example, because they can pinpoint where their customers, facilities and competitors are located, and then identify and target underserved areas. It can also provide an overview of additional services, such as how many home loans are being given out in which areas, by mapping loan applications processed by various financial services. That way, they can target the postal codes with the highest mortgages and offer re-financing or step-up advertising efforts in those areas.”

Steyn believes that maps are the single most effective way to display complex information so managers can use it for decision making. “With a map, you can see in seconds what might otherwise take hours of combing through diagnostic information buried deep in complex multi-page tables,” he says. “You instantly enhance your understanding of risk, customer interaction and economic decisions.”

The banking networks that support card machines at retail points of sale (POS) are a case in point, says Steyn. “Everyone loses out when there is trouble at a POS,” he says: “Retailers lose sales, banks lose transactions and customers can’t make purchases. Yet South Africa’s banks are mostly still only learning about problems when their customers call in a report.”

It should be the other way around, says Steyn: “The ideal situation is when the banks phone their customers to say ‘we’ve picked up a problem on your network but don’t worry, we’re dealing with it.’ But for that to happen, they need better information access.”

The problem is not that the data doesn’t exist, adds Steyn – it’s just that’s hard to find. “Sifting through real-time data feeds is a challenge, but increasingly one that businesses have to meet if they’re going to stay competitive. Taking inaccessible data and putting on a map turns it into a simple, useful decision making tool.”

This is particular popular in the insurance and risk management industries, where GIS is used to discern risk patterns in clients portfolios. Risk levels are based on factors as such density of buildings, environmental disasters and property values – which are all clearly displayed with geospatial data. GIS technology helps insurers and lenders prepare for natural disasters by being able to monitor and assess a portfolio by geogra­phy and confirm whether they have the appropriate reserves necessary to assist their customers and protect their own bottom line should a disaster, such a flood, hit a specific area.

Disaster management services can use datasets such as satellite imagery and topographic and street maps to bring aid to communities during a catastrophic event.

Steyn says there are few business problems that can’t benefit from taking a spatial view. “Humans are fundamentally visual thinkers, and seeing things mapped in space can help us to see patterns and connections that are otherwise obscured. Spatial systems are a great way to bridge the gap between data collection and business intelligence.”