Geographic Information Systems: Deepening Location Insights through technology
By Anshuman Magazine, Chairman and CEO, India, South East Asia, Middle East and Africa, CBRE
While location continues to be the leading factor determining leasing decisions, guiding investments and assessing property values, the technology used to inform the site selection process has evolved considerably in recent years. No longer reliant upon traditional column and row spreadsheets, occupiers, developers and investors are now deploying powerful new tools that integrate science into location decisions and are revolutionising how information is connected to its geographic position.
Spearheading this trend are Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which can transform raw information into data driven map-based visualisations illustrating complex analytics and geospatial relationships, helping uncover hidden opportunities and significantly enhancing the real estate decision making process.
What are Geographic Information Systems?
GIS are software that combine cartography and databases to gather, analyse and present reference information on computer-generated maps. First developed in the 1960s as desktop-based software, many industries now utilise GIS via the cloud and mobile devices.
GIS have a broad range of applications and are critical decision-making tools due to their capacity to clearly analyse and present data. Examples of how GIS are used include identifying traffic accident hotspots; mapping habitats for endangered species; and planning efficient transportation routes for product distribution to customers.
The use of GIS is especially relevant to the real estate industry due to property being geospatial in nature. Residential brokers and buyers have been using GIS for some time to visualise locations and evaluate them according to their specific requirements. For example, GIS can harness data to identify areas in which there is a higher concentration of certain demographic groups such as retirees, millennials or young children. Other data such as home sales, income levels, transportation networks and crime statistics can be overlaid to identify optimal locations and inform purchasing decisions. Listings can then be added to GIS maps enabling clients to visualise the properties available for sale in desired neighbourhoods.
In the office sector, GIS can evaluate how different locations affect employees’ commute times and experience and guide decisions around new office locations. GIS can calculate the number of employees positively or negatively impacted by the move and provide a detailed breakdown of the degree of impact based on travel time (Figure 1). Other commercial property sectors where GIS can add value include retail. For example, a restaurant chain looking to enter a new country could use GIS to identify top metro areas and create heat maps of optimal locations based on criteria such as average income, eating habits, typical spend per visit and location of competing facilities. These maps can be created by consumer analytics tools such as Calibrate by CBRE, which analyses the digital footprint of mobile phone users across different markets to generate big data relating to consumer behaviour. In the industrial sector, GIS can be used to identify prime locations for distribution warehouses by ascertaining distances to key infrastructure; planning routes to minimise distance, time and cost; and calculating the number of trucks required to deliver and unload goods to end-users.
GIS Platforms For Real Estate
GIS has been widely used in the urban planning, transportation and extractive industries for several decades and has been led by companies such as Esri, which designs and supplies GIS software products for desktop, server, and mobile platforms. One of the core strengths of CBRE’s Esri-based GIS platform, Dimension, is its ability to leverage a wealth of proprietary real estate data across all asset classes, market knowledge and understanding of client requirements, and to use this information to create highly-visual, leading-edge mapping technologies. This helps users visualise the impact of potential real estate decisions and gives them the insight necessary to make quicker and more educated decisions. For example, a retailer reviewing its store footprint could use Dimension to create a weighted formula from hundreds of variables such as public data related to population and neighbourhood income and integrate this with broker knowledge including competitor locations and market rents to create a heat map.
This map could then be used to identify the best locations to open a new store; pinpoint underperforming stores that may need to be closed; and even ascertain the ideal merchandise mix. The retailer is then able to better understand the market and position itself accordingly. This technology can also provide value for property owners seeking to create narratives around specific assets and opportunities. For example, a landlord wishing to fill a vacant space could create maps based on the number of residents and office workers in the vicinity of its mall, combine this with income and spending data and then use this information as a marketing tool to approach suitable retailers whose offering caters to an appropriate demographic. Should the same landlord wish to sell its mall, it could use GIS to create marketing collateral highlighting the qualities of the property, such as its connectivity to mass transit networks or proximity to high-income residential areas.
What next for GIS?
GIS tools require specialists to create and manage content, meaning that it is challenging to scale them to many users. However, rapid progress is being made towards creating automated tools that are entirely selfservice. Self-service GIS tools enable any real estate professional to take data such as property market information, demographic trends, consumer spending patterns and traffic models, and feed it into the system. The platform can then display this information in a visually compelling way, enabling anyone to create persuasive data evidence to support real estate decision making. While it remains challenging to obtain data that can be used to visualise a three-dimensional model of a building, it is far easier for people to consume information in 3D as it is how they process it in the real world. CBRE therefore expects to see an increasing emphasis on augmenting the visual capabilities of GIS, rather than data collection and analysis.
With developers continuing to build ‘up’ as well as ‘out’, 3D GIS enables stacking plans to be visualised in full 3D whilst providing greater context for landlords, occupiers and investors as it relates to amenities and other key services. For example, this would enable GIS to play a key role in the construction process as they could be used to enrich developers’ understanding of an asset by creating 3D models displaying detailed features such as plumbing and electrical points. While many firms are already utilising Building Information Modelling (BIM) platforms, GIS maps can paint a more comprehensive picture of both the asset and the surrounding area. This may involve on-site maintenance staff wearing augmented reality headsets into which GIS maps are uploaded, enabling them to more efficiently identify and resolve building management issues.
Other potential applications include enhancing information for investors by displaying 3D city maps showing precisely how their asset connects to transportation systems and fiber optic networks. 3D city maps are based on geospatial data such as building heights and shapes which are collected by aircraft and drones. Using this information, real estate technology experts can generate entire 3D cities without the significant costs involved in modelling them. However, availability of this data varies and can be more expensive in some markets then others.
Whilst developing 3D city maps has many challenges, the future also promises other innovative opportunities for GIS mapping technology. Digital Twins, which are digital replicas of living or non-living physical entities, are starting to gain traction with various major software firms providing IoT and Digital Twin services and platforms. When combined with 3D GIS, it would be feasible to visualise an entire portfolio of Digital Twins across a 3D city, providing owners with an immediate view of how their assets are performing and where any problems might exist.
Digital Twins also provide opportunities for smart building services, which CBRE expects to initially emerge as insights for owners and investors with future capabilities around command and control for building systems.