On 24 June 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte crossed the River Neman into Russia, with Moscow in his sights. Starting with an army of nearly half a million men, marching 700 miles through forests, across dirt roads and uneven, unfriendly ground, the French invaders arrived in Moscow on 14 September 1812.
Moscow was empty and denuded of all useful supplies. Out of options, Napoleon and his army began a treacherous withdrawal through the bleak Russian winter, amid temperatures of 40 degrees below freezing. Defeated and without food, the French army retreated, beset by sickness, defection and suicides, inexorably pursued by Russian troops. By 22 December, the invaders had been totally removed from Russia. Fewer than 15,000 soldiers survived.
What does this history lesson have to do with a piece on geographic information systems (GIS)? The answer: everything. In 1869, Charles Joseph Minard, a French engineer, presented the story of this catastrophic campaign in a chart, described as possibly ‘the best statistical graphic ever drawn’.
The ability of this chart to capture every exquisite detail of Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign in a ‘one pager’ is beyond compare. The map shows each town that the French trudged through, with the band representing the size of the army at each location. The brown part signifies the march on Moscow, with the black showing the imperilled retreat. Temperature and time scales are provided at the bottom of the chart. This is visualisation and communication expressed as art – it tells the story. We should demand this of our modern business software.
GIS and spatial analytics software are there to help both operationally and strategically, having it baked into applications, benefits, communications and decision-making. New conventions, such as ‘what3words’ which can define any 3x3m square on Earth simply by 3 words, have become essential tools for our emergency services to respond to ambiguous locations with accuracy, literally saving lives.
Providing users with features to ‘draw a search’ directly on a map to retrieve locations within a defined area builds a picture greater than traditional address searches. Being able to view the position of field operatives in real-time aids in the planning and execution of day-to-day repairs, saving time and money. And using smart algorithms, such as ‘Graham-scan’, help to conclude unknown boundaries when balancing stock viability with social-purpose indicators.
Simple, elegant and intuitive; mapping helps tell the story like no other medium. The godfather of IoT and ubiquitous computing, Mark Weiser, said, “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” Geographic information features should be as customary in our business lives as our use of sat-navs in our everyday car journeys.
Justin Fisher is the product manager for housing at Capita One.