March 31, 2021

Is Your Online Sites & Buildings App Costing You Opportunities?

Ron Bertasi

Leading economic development organizations recognize the competitive pressures on businesses to make the right location decisions, and they respond by ensuring their online site selection app stays up to date. After all, GIS technology continues to advance rapidly, with useful new tools and data coming out regularly.

Up-to-date apps incorporate the Esri data businesses are looking for, as well as advanced tools designed to make it as easy as possible for site selectors to find local data and stay focused on that EDO’s territory. Above all, modern apps continue to advance by incorporating new GIS functionality on a continuous basis.

Legacy apps, in contrast, make occasional minor changes but don’t reflect the rapid advances in underlying GIS technology. As a result, EDOs continuing to use legacy apps are falling behind in the competitive game of business attraction and retention, and likely missing out on opportunities as a result.

In an earlier blog post I wrote about why legacy technologies aren’t keeping up. (Hint: legacy providers treat these products as cash cows.) That post mentions a few specific examples of advanced features legacy apps lack, but it did not tell economic developers exactly how to judge whether their technology is falling behind.

There are lots of advanced features and data lacking in legacy apps, but look for these five. This is a pretty basic test, and if your online sites & buildings app fails it your technology is clearly outdated and you are probably missing out on opportunities as a result.

1. The GIS app ignores traffic. Traffic is a fact of life for the vast majority of locations, and any

Figure 1: Customizable Drive Times in GIS WebTech’s Recruit

realistic analysis must take traffic into account. This is why modern GIS technology enables a consideration of traffic. Yet legacy GIS apps, built years ago on low-cost GIS platforms, provide only average drive times making no distinction between rush hour and any other time.

In most places average drive times bear little relation to real life and result in inaccurate analysis. For example, a business wanting to look at workforce data within a 40-minute commute time is simply out of luck, because the average drive time offered by the legacy app does not reflect typical commute times.

Worse, if the business does not understand they are getting an average drive time and runs an analysis the resulting data will be inaccurate and misleading.

Modern GIS technologies, on the other hand, allow the user to specify the day of the week, the time of day, and the direction of travel for the analysis, ensuring real-life traffic is reflected in the results. The result is highly accurate data, a high degree of confidence in the analysis, and confidence in the EDO’s territory as a potential location.

Bottom line: economic developers should insist on modern GIS technology incorporating customizable drive times that reflect real-life traffic.

2. The GIS app cannot provide trucking or walking analysis. Many economic development organizations are focused on recruiting advanced manufacturing, industrial, distribution, and similar companies. And for good reason: these businesses create high paying jobs and provide a boost to the local tax base.

These companies all have something else in common: they require trucking to and from their facilities. So leading economic developers make sure their GIS technology provides trucking time and trucking distance tools. These tools reflect the differences between trucks and passenger cars in speed limits, bridge weight limits, and other factors. If you are using an app that does not provide trucking analysis you may be losing opportunities because of it.

Figure 2: Analytical Tools in GIS WebTech’s Recruit

Similarly, many economic developers are focused on retail and street-level businesses in urban areas, downtowns, and for redevelopment zones. For these businesses, being able to understand demographic data within a walking time or walking distance is a major plus, and economic developers that provide it can create a competitive edge.

Bottom line: if you are targeting industrials, manufacturers or distributors you must include trucking analysis, and if you are focused on urban areas or downtowns you need to include walking analysis. Legacy apps, built before these tools were available, simply don’t have them.

3. Your GIS provider requires you to email shapefiles if you want to include local data. It is a truism in the modern site selection process: businesses and site selectors come to your website specifically looking for local information. So economic developers need to include the local data that highlights their communities’ strengths and helps tell their stories. Good examples are local incentive zones, local transit, zoning, infrastructure, special development districts, and quality of life data like trails, parks, and beaches.

These layers are all built locally by your government and utility partners on the Esri platform, and modern technology on the same Esri platform can import these into your online site selection app on a fully automated basis. A few clicks and you are done. It is that simple.

So why is your provider asking you to get the local GIS departments to produce shapefiles, have them email those shapefiles to you, have you forward them to the provider, repeat the process when there is a problem loading the shapefiles, and then do it all over again in a few months when the underlying layers get updated? One client of ours referred to this as “shapefile email bingo.”

None of this is necessary. Modern GIS apps built on the Esri platform can automate the integration of local layers built by your government and utility partners. No need to play shapefile email bingo.

And there is no need to watch your local layers get out of date. GIS WebTech’s Recruit always points back to the source data through the Esri platform, so once loaded you never need to worry about your layer getting out of date. Recruit always includes the most recent data.

4. The GIS app uses Google Earth for virtual site visits. A comprehensive virtual site visit includes five components, and modern GIS apps enable all five. Legacy apps using Google Earth can’t provide several of these components, greatly limiting the effectiveness of virtual site visits.

Why is this? Because Google Earth is a consumer app and was never designed with business use in mind. It does not support several critical requirements of virtual site visits.

For example, if you want to showcase an existing building in a virtual site visit you should obviously include the critical interior space. Your prospect is surely going to want to see it. But with Google Earth you are out of luck. Google Earth 3D views do not include interior space.

Similarly, Google Earth does not have any 3D exterior views for rural areas, so for rural economic developers Google Earth means no virtual site visits at all.

Figure 3: 3D Layer of Proposed Industrial Park in GIS WebTech’s Recruit

And Google Earth can only show existing buildings. Have a site you think would be perfect for a distribution facility? With modern GIS apps purpose built for economic development, you can include a 3D layer of the proposed building(s). You don’t even need site plans or designs, just a simple description. Modern, purpose-built GIS apps for economic development allow you to showcase proposed buildings just as easily as existing buildings. Google Earth does not support 3D for proposed buildings, so your prospects are forced to use their imagination when you discuss potential site uses.

Lastly, Google Earth is loaded up with games, quizzes, trivia and other consumer features that make it painfully slow to load and run. It will test business users’ patience. Try loading Google Earth while sharing screens in a Zoom or Teams meeting and count how long it takes to load.

5. The GIS app includes only cookie-cutter property brochures with little or no customization. Property inventory has never been more important in economic development, and in a recent webinar we heard from one of our site selection partners on how difficult it has become to find properties and how critical it is to provide the right data.

Figure 4: Customizable Brochure from GIS WebTech’s Recruit

With property data so important, leading economic developers know that property brochures are being downloaded more than ever. So they are taking advantage of the incredible flexibility that modern GIS apps provide to customize their brochures, transforming them from simple pdf files showing a few basic property facts to fully functional marketing collateral highlighting their community.

Some examples? Leading economic developers are including their full branding along with the critical property data – logo, full color palette, image quality standards, and more. They are designing the layout to reflect their website style, and they are including infographics highlighting community strengths to keep the business focused on their community even if the particular property does not work out. Further, they are producing different brochure templates for undeveloped sites and for buildings, reflecting their different audiences.

Unfortunately, legacy GIS apps provide only canned property brochures with little or no ability to customize. With older technologies it simply is not possible to transform property brochures into marketing tools.

In today’s competitive market economic developers need a technology platform and technology provider that never stop innovating. GIS WebTech and Esri, the premiere providers of GIS technology for economic development, provide that continuous innovation. And as we note elsewhere in our blog, GIS WebTech, as the only certified Esri partner in economic development, provides the sector’s only complete GIS package.

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