Software puts data on the map

Massachusetts agency takes a visual approach to making sense of its data

LIKE MANY STATE agencies, the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency has no shortage of information about its clientele ' in its case, residents seeking low- and moderate-cost housing. The agency has long compiled reports using IBM's Cognos business intelligence software, which helps managers and state lawmakers make sense of where their constituents are, which jurisdictions are being served the most and the least, and more.

Now the agency is making such information easier to digest using a geo-mapping plug-in for its Cognos business intelligence software.

'I think this will allow us to better respond to queries,' said Carl Richardson, the agency's business intelligence manager. 'Most people respond to graphics a lot better than they do to spreadsheets.'

The software, provided by Pitney Bowes' MapInfo division, can ingest a list of addresses and place little virtual push-pins of each location into a computing map. The annotated map can show managers how a large body of data is geographically distributed.

Many agency managers' questions tend to be geographical in nature, Richardson said. For instance, managers and state policy-makers need to keep a close eye on how many loans are being made in individual districts, ZIP codes, counties or area codes.

Other needs also arise. One state worker recently had to compile a report of all the loans made for Boston homes that were within a mile of a subway stop.

The information is compiled from various databases, spreadsheets and text files, which several agencies may own. Cognos aggregates the information into scheduled and ad hoc reports, which are accessed via a browser-based dashboard. An option on the dashboard lets users organize the data into a map. The agency uses MapInfo Professional.

'Especially these days, people are used to using Yahoo Maps or Google Maps. Mapping has become something of a standard,' Richardson said. Employees are expecting the same functionality at work that they get at home.

The MapInfo software has application programming interfaces that can work with the Cognos software in addition to many other enterprise applications, said Jon Winslow, director of business development in Pitney Bowes' MapInfo division. Pitney Bowes purchased MapInfo ' then a publicly traded company ' about a year ago. The Java-based program can be run with a Java Enterprise Edition application server.

'The average user in an organization can do some pretty sophisticated things without going through a tough learning curve,' Winslow said of MapInfo Professional.

MapInfo lets users place onto maps data that has a geographic marker, such as a ZIP code. It also lets users generate maps based on the proximity of two sets of data ' such as subway stops and houses ' in addition to the measuring the density, or the number of individual data elements within a specified region. (For a GCN Lab review of MapInfo 9.5, go to GCN.com/1219.)

'You can say, 'Tell me all the properties within 10 minutes of a location. Show me all the malls or schools located within 10 minutes of a map. Tell me what kind of environmental hazards in the area. Tell me all the properties or ZIP codes within a flood zone,'' Winslow said.

Don Campbell, Cognos' chief technology officer, agreed that geographic placement can be an important aspect of business intelligence, and that MapInfo Professional eases the task.

'The joining of business data and geographic data has always been important, but up until now, it's been difficult from a workflow perspective,' he said. 'Maps are the right way to display this intelligence.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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