MapPoint Review and Perspective
MapPoint…. GIS System, Mapping package, or just a
real business tool? Andrew Whittam shares his insights
For some years I have been working with MapInfo and after the usual
baptism of fire in terms of trying to figure it out (with the help of the excellent
MapInfo-list forum), I now consider my self a proficient and business
In my work as a freelance data analyst I always found it easy to get clients
interested in the nuggets in their data by beginning a meeting with a large
map showing things like… where their customers were, where the
concentrations of their best customers were in relation to their stores.
A map is such a fascinating picture and it surely paints many thousand
customer, patient, employee, or member records.
After the initial euphoria, the problem I always had was twofold:
1. The sheer cost of buying MapInfo (or Arcview) plus the cost of the
base mapping data
2. The technical expertise required in being able to make the thing
produce even simple dot plot maps
In some respects, those problems are opportunities for me, and that will
continue to be the case.
However, while many organisations can and do understand the insights provided from geographic analysis, they aren't usually willing to shell out finance and technical resource early on. So, sadly the interest in GIS wanes.
Was there any light at the end of the tunnel?
I first came across MapPoint a while ago with MapPoint 2000. I got it by
accident. A demo version on the front of a magazine I bought wouldn't work.
I emailed the editor and got a free full version by way of apology. It seemed
a good deal, and certainly it was. For some time I'd wandered why
Microsoft hadn't released any business mapping software, MapPoint 2000
was possibly the answer. I played around with it on and off for a while. It
allowed for basic maps and the ability to import data and produce thematic
(shaded) maps. What it lacked was a drivetime facility and anything but
relatively basic UK data and the ability to customise it with VBA.
At the time it didn't seem interesting enough to invest time investigating and
evaluating more fully. In the same vein, I didn't hear too much about it in the
news groups or from other GIS professionals. Possibly this was because it
lacked the usual glitzy marketing support from Microsoft.
Then last year along came MapPoint 2002… again it seemed interesting.
This time though there was a comprehensive drivetime module (certainly
better than MapInfo's), the ability to customise using VB, data across
Europe, better integration with MS Office and loads of tools that I would
usually only expect to find in a "proper" GIS package.
Interesting… so interesting I invested £170 of my hard earned income in it…
immediately… without waiting for the evaluation to expire!
I could now do all sorts of things:
* Plan a route for my holiday to France
My holiday route planned – I can adjust it if I wanted to avoid towns or roads. Do I need a “proper GIS” drivetime module?
* Plot a map of where the children in my daughters class live in relation
to their school (a contentious issue at the moment)
* Even produce a map for my mother to take her grandchildren to
school… that she easily understood.
These were just tasks on a personal level. To think what I might be able to do
professionally in my freelance role… I might even address the cost and
resource issue of using the "real" GIS solutions.
So, having done all those "play around" things one does on a rainy
Saturday morning (we have them in the UK), and having realised this was
more than just a play piece of software, I started to realise that MapPoint
was a tool I could use in my work.
Looking through past GIS projects (or GI projects as is the current politically
correct term for fiddling with Postcodes and maps) I realised that around
80% of my work didn't require anything sophisticated. More importantly for
my clients and a new breed of desktop analysts (I'll come to them shortly),
the costs of producing maps would decrease significantly.
With any GI project the first task is to understand the business questions.
Typically they run along the lines of:
* Where are my customers… where are my best customers… where
are my dealers in relation to the customers who haven't spent in the
last three months
* Where are the concentrations of my best customers in relation to my
best dealers… how has this changed over the last three quarters
* What effect did my new store have on the others in the area… did we
gain new customers… good ones?
It's relatively simple stuff, it earns me a living and it's satisfying to see the
looks on the faces as they pour over the map from different sides of the
So, we now have a Microsoft tool, which presents data in another business
dimension. It's good, it's cheap and… it works!
Land registry data, downloaded from the web and mapped in minutes (darker colours show areas of more expensive housing) – my clients would love to see such simple geographic analysis. Luckily the data was in an easy to use format, but even so it wouldn't be difficult to write a VBA module to standardize Postcode Districts to a usable format.
The effect on the GI market isn't just about people producing maps at a
fraction of the cost. What will emerge is a new strata of business analyst -
desktop analysts who have a basic understanding of geography, whether
Postcode or their own territories. As long as they are data literate, as most
decision makers are these days with products like Excel, then MapPoint can
be as much a familiar tool as Excel... well almost. These people make
business decisions; they don't sit in IT departments.
As I write this I hear the virtual mutterings of MapInfo and ArcInfo
technologists berating MapPoints simplicity. "It won't do... XYZ projection",
"it's not a serious GI tool" - these things have been said to my face when I
do my "...have you used MapPoint 2002... it's great!".
I think that's where they are wrong. It does pretty much all of what I think
my clients will want. For most who have never used a layer control or
written SQL they won't miss these features. They want the basic questions
answering. It's simple Pareto - 80% of the decisions can be made from
20% of the data effort. I agree that sadly the other 80% of the data effort
gets left behind, they have made their decisions.
With respect to most of these new desktop GI analysts, they probably don't
know what mapping projections are... more importantly, they don't need to
know. This breed of business GI consumer just wants to have the
information to make decisions.
I guess the GI stalwarts are more concerned about their turf being invaded,
both from a purity and a business angle. This doesn't have to be the case
though. The GI market is nowhere near saturation. Giving the desktop
analyst the facility to answer the basic where questions on his/her own,
almost always prompts further questions. These in turn require heavyweight
tools and solutions to provide answers. I am finding that questions are being
asked that wouldn't have been asked without the use of tools like MapPoint.
It's not just in the GI area. Much of my work is centred around desktop data
analysis. Giving clients their data in customised, often interactive, Excel
solutions always brings about meetings where more sophisticated,
interesting and even sometimes revenue bearing solutions are required!
MapPoint isn't all things to all people, but without a doubt it is a valuable
entry tool into serious GI decision making. With a little thought, it can have
knock on benefits for the serious GI practitioner. In any case I'm sure Bill
Gates has thought this all through.
Where I can see a geographical angle in my client's data I will certainly be
showing how MapPoint can help to aide decision-making. When I tell them
the cost and how they can explore their data geographically, I expect they
will be impressed.
Discuss this story in the forum.
Author: Andrew Whittam
Andrew is a freelance data analyst with a specialist area of interest in Mapping
and Geographical Analysis. He has 15 years experience in the data side of Market
Analysis, Market Research and Database Marketing.
His interest range from historical maps to furniture design. He lives with his family
in South West London (UK).