Don’t Fear the G-word: Understanding Your Organization through Colorful Maps

Written by Kerry Cosby on June 27, 2019

The words “geospatial analysis” sound intimidating. But let’s be honest: the ability to look at an organization’s work across the country or around the world is pretty powerful. Despite its pretensions, “geospatial analysis” simply means using maps, graphs and statistics to visualize and understand member and customer behavior across geographic locations and make better business decisions.

Not so intimidating after all, but extremely important—especially if neglected.

Geospatial analysis can tell us where we need to be on the ground for our next membership promotion and where we should host our upcoming conferences and courses.

Just like graphs, maps can give us information about the distribution of our data, comparison between different data, relationship between two or more features in our data and the composition of our data—but at the same time, they show us visually where this data applies.

Associations are dynamic and ever-evolving, so let’s explore how data mapping and geospatial analysis could help ensure their survival.

All New Markets are Geographic

All organizations seeking to expand within one state, one country, one region or worldwide need to look at their work geospatially.

Whether or not we are aware of it, all expansion occurs on a map.

Even when we seek to serve a new market of professionals, we find ourselves expanding geographically. Companies often collocate because of the ease of doing business in a place or access to materials and people with skills needed for the development of their product. So serving a new niche of professionals often means opening a market in a new location.

When we create a heatmap of professionals connected to a particular company or set of companies, we see clumps or hotspots of people located within a particular distance from the company’s address (similar to the image below)

And here is where you need geospatial analysis: What happens when the situation changes in a company’s current location?

The company moves.

And the people in that profession follow them. Geospatial analysis will catch this process early. We will see members and customers change their addresses in our databases or see them accessing our website consistently from a new location. In other words, these hotspots will move.

A Tale of Two Departments

We might take a lesson from the U.S. State Department and their slowness in visualizing data geospatially. A few years ago in foreign policy circles there were stories that the U.S. State Department was calling for the use of more colorful maps in their briefing documents on Afghanistan. The Secretary of State wanted the Secretary of Defense not “to dominate the conversation by waving his colorful maps and charts in front of everybody.”

The State Department learned quickly that colorful maps were not only eye-catching, but also made a great case in a very short amount of time. Richard Holbrooke—then special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan—specifically noted that no one read the mountains of written reports, “but they all look at the maps and color charts.” It’s too bad that by the time State started using these tools, they had already found themselves losing influence in the discussion.

As associations, we have integrated the color charts into many of our business activities, but we’re still missing the maps. We tend not to look at our membership activities and customer behaviors geospatially. Yes, we all list or count the number of countries where we have members or hold events, but we rarely conduct any kind of geospatial analysis.

When was the last time you made a decision based on a map someone had included in a slide show? Probably never, right?

Well, you should.

Association executives often look at activities in the aggregate—bar and line graphs, pie charts, and worksheets—showing us members’ and customers’ behavior overall. We talk about overall growth, average sales and general attendance, but we are mostly silent on where people are coming from, where they are going, how far they are traveling and how frequently they travel.

When we neglect geospatial analysis, we miss the fact that our members do not live clustered together. The same processes and problems do not affect all of them, or they affect them differently. I’ve written elsewhere about the need for political and country risk analysis when expanding an organization globally, but really this is only one aspect of the members’ world that affects their behavior.

When we take into consideration the member’s local environment, the essence of geospatial analysis, we can better engage and serve him or her.

Associations need to heed the moral of the State Department’s tale and make certain they are not behind the geospatial curve.

If you are interested in geospatial analysis, join us for the Association Data Analytics Brown Bag on October 1, 2019 for a presentation and discussion on the subject with your peers from around the world. Each of our brown bags qualifies as 1 CAE credit.