In many of my discussions with customers I talk about the value Virtual Earth plays in data visualization, especially around business intelligence and visualizing that information on maps for analysis. Now, even the iPhone is making its way into enterprise applications hosted by SharePoint with IDV Solution’s new Visual Fusion Contribute application (see below). We have a whole partner ecosystem that can help our customers build out this kind of functionality, but I found quite a few instances where development shops (both partner and non) are building out web parts that feature Microsoft Virtual Earth as a canvas for painting all kinds of crazy data. This crazy data is the data that is sitting in your data warehouses collecting dust or being uselessly wasted in Excel spreadsheets or charts for PowerPoint presentations. I’m not disrespecting Excel or PowerPoint; however, I’ve seen the power of moving the presentation layer of data to maps and the impact it makes on businesses.
Business intelligence alone will change when you add the "Where" element to all of your data and view it on a map. These types of questions can finally be answered: Where are my Sales taking off? Where are they tanking? Am I opening/closing locations in the right town or right part of town. Where are customers inquiring about my products? Do I have outlets there? How can visualizing demographic information on a map tell me that given certain conditions, certain products will sell more and others, less?
How about taking this even further and adding seasonality, so there’s an element of time tied to your data. When are sales taking off in the Pacific Northwest? How about the Northeast? Add weather information. Answering these types of questions allows you to make informed decision on when to stock shelves with more of what products and less of another. They also help build predictive models for sales, revenue and the oft forgotten profit. Many companies are find it difficult to predict revenues given the current economy, so adding mapping visualizations can certainly help in these efforts. Remember this? "When a hurricane hits, Wal-Mart’s sales of cherry Pop-Tarts increase (up to seven times in some instances)." How would they know that without location as an element of their data? Now that GIS is easily converted to a format that can be rendered on a Virtual Earth map for distribution to the web, and SharePoint has such a huge footprint in the enterprise the two make a natural marriage to show business intelligence internally for lines of business to make smarter decisions. And, really, isn’t looking at a map sooo much nicer (and interesting) than staring at spreadsheets? Below is a collection of companies helping leverage Virtual Earth with SharePoint.
IDV Solutions is about to release an iPhone application dubbed "Visual Fusion Contribute." Visual Fusion Contribute is an enterprise iPhone application that uses Virtual Earth to allow a user to contribute geo-tagged photos and notes back to SharePoint. The notes and photos can then be shared out into a Visual Fusion Server application – Visual Fusion is IDV’s product for creating geospatial mashups within SharePoint. Now this is a great idea! Using iPhone, whose popularity has skyrocketed, and it’s feature set for enterprise applications. I mean seriously, when iPhone released with an API for GPS all kinds of possibilities opened up for those of us in the Geographic Information Services / Location Based Services space. Yes, there’s cool applications like Loopt and NJection that use mapping in a consumer facing, fun way. And, hey, I’m a fun kind of guy (perhaps in a weird way), but when it comes down to it I actually like Gordon Gecko. It’s time like these when I’m wondering just how valuable anything I do is. Will it generate revenue? What’s the business model for making money? That is The Goal, no? I digress. Mobile applications in general are on the cusp of a huge explosion. I believe location is the factor that will push it over the top and allow for mobile computing (from a smart device to REALLY take off. Hey, I even like what Google’s doing with the Latitude product. We had it 3 years ago with MapPoint Location Server, but we shelved it because the provider location frameworks (a) weren’t stable enough to support our enterprise needs since they were built for the E-911 initiative (how many people would you expect to call 911) and (b) the providers knew there was value and wanted to capitalize on it they just couldn’t figure out how. Now that the Loopt’s and Latitudes are out there, I’d expect the providers to begin loosening their restrictions so partners can start innovating on these applications. IDV Solutions is ahead of the game in that they’re ready to take on the enterprise market. To read more about Visual Fusion Contribute, check out Ian Clemen’s blog.
ComponentOne recently launched their Virtual Earth web part. The web part brings Virtual Earth maps to SharePoint with their on-board designer â€“ a web form letting users set map styles, lat/lons, and zoom level. Also, this designer lets users select their data source from SharePoint Lists or SQL Server. So, now you don’t need a stand alone database connection to pull data out. You can simple create a list of addresses (customers, vendors, employees, etc.) and very simply map them out. What’s also nice is that regardless of using a list of db, the designer will be populated with the respective field types so you can select what information you’re interested in â€“ in true SharePoint fashion. As for the points on the map, you can customize the pushpins on the map, how a user interacts with them, and the type of annotation you want alongside your data. There’s a great video highlighting the different features on the Labs web site. You can download the ComponentOne SharePoint Virtual Earth web part free by registering on their site (you also get web parts for a data grid and charts).
Most recently, Monitor Analytics’ launched their GeoAnalyzer which packages up much of what you’d like to do into a nice SharePoint/SQL Server/Virtual Earth experience. Specifically, GeoAnalyzer allows business users to mash data from SQL Server Analysis Services and SQL Server Relational Database with Virtual Earth. GeoAnalyzer is built with Silverlight 2.0 and is available as a Microsoft SharePoint web part. Some of the unique features of GeoAnalyzer include full support of Analysis Services hierarchies which users can use to drill in and out as well as a Silverlight chart that allows users to analyze data by other dimensions in the cube for a location of interest. You can download a free trial of GeoAnalyzer from their web site to check it out.
You can expect to see Virtual Earth popping up in every Microsoft product in the coming days because as I’ve always said, location is a piece of everything we do. And, I’ve spent the last 2 years ensuring Microsoft products take full advantage of our location data visualization.