What Spatial Data Is and How Your Team Can Leverage It
Space and time are the two main vectors through which people understand the world around them. You’re late for a meeting (time), you need an address for that new restaurant in town (space), or you’re trying to figure out how long it’ll take to commute to that shiny new office downtown (time and space). That means the data businesses depend on often falls within one of these two categories. Spatial data, as the name suggests, refers to the space half of that equation.
But what is it exactly? And how is it used?
What is spatial data?
The term spatial data refers to any piece of data that has some sort of connection with a location somewhere on Earth. An address is an example of spatial data, as is demographic information about a specific place — like the percentage of people with a specific income in a neighborhood.
Spatial data can also be called geographic data, geospatial data, georeferenced data, geodata, or geoinformation. It’s essential in a ton of fields, where it’s used for research, analysis, communication, and even convenience.
What is spatial data used for?
Spatial data is everywhere — literally! — which means it’s used in a ton of industries. But before diving into that, let’s see the different ways spatial data can be useful in functions that are common across these industries.
Spatial data can be used for research in all sorts of fields. For example, imagine that you’re a human rights researcher diving into how socioeconomic status in some disadvantaged neighborhoods can affect acceptance into reputable schools. You’d probably use something like census data and other historical location data in your research. That’s spatial data.
Research and analysis are two sides of the same coin. Where research is about gathering data, analysis is where you turn that data into something useful, whether that’s an idea, a model, or a new tool. In analysis, you might use spatial data to reinforce other types of data gathered from your research or connect multiple types of spatial data to create a stronger argument.
Spatial data is essential for planning projects and other initiatives in a variety of industries. Whether you’re a municipal project manager who needs information about power lines, a telecommunications company that relies on topographic data to plan a network expansion, or a business strategist trying to pick the best location for a new franchise, you’re using spatial data.
Ever used Google Maps? Then you’ve used spatial data to make your life more convenient. See, it’s one thing to use an address to get somewhere, but apps like Google Maps collect a ton of spatial data on locations throughout the world. By relating those data points to each other, Google Maps enriches your experience, giving you more to work with than just an address.
7 examples of industries that use spatial data
Whenever someone uses a map to represent data, they’re relying on spatial data — meaning it’s useful in a ton of industries. Here are some examples.
No matter their specialty, academics are almost always researching something. Whether they’re working on a new paper, a book, or the curriculum for a course, that research is a huge part of their job. Know what’s often part of that research? Spatial data. Whether it’s a historian trying to tie a certain text to a certain empire, a sociologist studying socio-economic patterns in disadvantaged countries, or a biologist tracking the evolution of a disease in a specific city, spatial data is a key component of their research.
Business and finance
Finance is all about numbers, sure, but you’d be surprised how often those numbers get tied to some kind of spatial data. Investors, for instance, will often look at this kind of data to evaluate how valuable a potential investment is. If they’re thinking of buying shares in a bank, for instance, they might look into the number of branches it has, where it’s doing most of its business, and where its competition is.
Marketers use spatial data extensively to plan campaigns, learn more about their customers, and study the competition. Some of that data will come from information their customers submit to use a product or service — like their address — while some will be collected from smartphones and websites. For example, location data from a customer’s smartphone can tell marketers which stores they frequent and how far from their home they might travel for certain products. That data can help them refine their marketing strategy or think of new initiatives to bring in business.
Governments have access to a ton of spatial data, and a lot of it gets used to plan projects and provide different services. Think about community centers, for example. Depending on its size, a single municipality could have a dozen community centers, serving different areas within its territory. Spatial data can be used to ensure that those areas don’t overlap too much; otherwise, one center might go unused in favor of another. So when building a new community center, a municipality may use the addresses of an existing center’s customer base to avoid that overlap.
Telecommunications services rely on spatial data for planning, building, and maintaining their networks. That’s no surprise since their whole industry is built around sending signals over large distances. But there’s another way these companies use spatial data that you might not have thought of — outage maps. Because outages are localized, telecommunications companies use spatial data to pinpoint their location and share that with their customers.
Spatial data is crucial for real estate. It’s used for everything from making neighborhoods more attractive, communicating exactly what’s being sold, and comparing the price of a specific property to the local market. Realtors, online listings, and even real estate investors use spatial data.
Logistics is all about getting things done as efficiently as possible, usually through the interaction of multiple types of infrastructure. If you’re managing deliveries for a massive warehouse, for example, logistics involves getting products to that warehouse, keeping them organized, and shipping them out as orders come in. Spatial data can be essential for organizing space, but also for establishing catchment areas and delivery ranges.
Data iiiiiin spaaaaaace!
Spatial data is a broad term for all sorts of data associated with a location. But it’s also widely used throughout all sorts of industries for research, analysis, planning, and convenience. Whether you’re a marketer, a financial advisor, or a logistics manager, you’ve probably already been using spatial data in your work. It’s an essential part of getting things done.