Google Earth: The Manager's New Best Friend

Last Updated Apr 6, 2009 10:29 AM EDT

With dropping costs of GPS systems and the expanding customization possibilities of Google Maps and Google Earth, companies have a powerful, sophisticated and inexpensive way to look at everything from demographics of potential markets to how information flows through their own organizations.

Google Maps has been around for years, but Google Earth is just coming into its own as a business tool, reports Harvard Business Publishing blogger John Sviokla in How Google Earth Can Improve Your Business.

"It can become the scaffolding you hang all your firm's relevant data 'on top' of," he writes. "It will help you turn information overload into a corporate asset -- with a common view on how your little world is operating -- which will give you an information advantage in a hyper competitive market."
The service comes pre-populated with many types of information, such as traffic and weather reports. Sviokla notes that the New York Times geo-codes stories so they can be seen on a map along with other stories on that location.

In a particularly sophisticated application, GE is being used to coordinate terrorist threat response in Alabama. The Alabama Department of Homeland Security uses Google Earth to help responders communicate with each other, plot resources (firehydrants) and risks (schools) on maps, route evacuations, and even do the ghastly business of modeling fallout clouds across the landscape.

Back to Maps
Google Maps has proved its business chops for years, but I still get the sense that not enough businesses take advantage of its power. Here are some just-scratching-the-surface ways Google Maps technology is being used today:

  • Vehicles and People Tracking A number of free and paid services offer the ability to capture GPS coordinates taken in real time from cell phones or other devices held by your folks in the field and place them on a map. You can annotate each entry with vehicle descriptions, arrival time, tonnage ... anything you like.
  • Heat Maps Combing color and maps -- heat maps -- offers a vibrant visual tool to interpret data. Here's one looking at the density of fast food restaurants in the 48 contiguous states. Hmmm, what franchise could I start in Montana?
  • Staff Suggestions. Collect and plot staff suggestions for best restaurants, hotels, and sightseeing stops. Here's a map of Manhattan pizza joints with reviews and directions.
  • Market Demographics. Overlay freely available census-based demographic data on top of geography, such as this look at the San Francisco Bay Area by age. Created by Kate Sherwood
  • Interactive Guest Book. Allow your Website visitors to sign a guest book that also locates their home on a world map. Great snapshot of where your visitors live.
  • Reverse Lookup Locator. A reverse address director is an important part of any mobile salesforce. Our Business Hacks friends down the hall at BNET recently wrote on this nifty application that provides an address by just clicking on a Google map location.
How Google Uses Google Maps
Google might be its own best example of the power of this technology. I recently sat in on a presentation at which Google's Bo Cowgill explained that every (or almost every) employee's desk around the world is mapped with GPS coordinates. When hooked up to the company's vaunted internal prediction market program, execs can quickly map how ideas flow through corridors, office buildings and even countries. (One big learning: Where you sit and who you sit next to has a big influence on how you bet in a prediction market).

Google, of course, isn't the only mapping software available for these jobs, but I highlight it here because of the wide uses this particular technology is being used to accomplish. You should figure out your own needs and then choose the right technology for the job.

How do you use mapping technology in your own business? What's your favorite application?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.