Whether or not you know the acronym, most real estate professionals have a basic knowledge of what GIS or Geographical Information Systems tools do. They layer numerous pieces of data over a base map, could be roads, satellite imagery or beyond, and so are useful for a range of purposes from locating natural resources to estimating population trends to calculating travel times.
In reality, many of the maps we frequently use are actually GIS systems. Every time you check directions to a new restaurant on Google Maps, you’re using GIS. Every time you look up a parcel on your local assessor’s site, you’re using GIS. And if you ever visit Johns Hopkins University’s online COVID-19 dashboard, you’d be using a public GIS interface. Yet nonetheless, GIS roles at real estate companies are often performed by specific mapping specialists even though this powerful tool can be extremely useful for many different real estate functions.
The two most common GIS platforms are ESRI’s ArcGIS and QGis. Each are extremely powerful programs that can be overwhelming if you don’t have an understanding of relational databases and the fundamentals of cartography. But there’s no doubt that the advanced functionality of these systems, which goes well beyond simply layering data, can give real estate teams whether they are owners, appraisers, brokers or managers a big step when it comes to site analysis. In general, these systems allow users to perform advanced spatial and statistical modeling of geographic elements through the use of sophisticated if/and statements and Python coding.
Want to predict where land values are going to go up or down based on historic price trends and a regression analysis of related factors? GIS can do it. Want to simulate traffic and crowd formation for your retail location decision? GIS has got you covered. Want to review noise, sightline and sunlight characteristics of a new development? GIS for the win.
Over the last few months, we have all seen how the impact, both social and financial, brought on by COVID-19 has been so closely tied to geography. Certain areas have been so much harder hit than others, for a number of different reasons. Understanding the reasons some places are more susceptible can help cities with their preventative measures and can help the real estate world understand where risk lies if we have a prolonged battle with this coronavirus.
Epistemix is a startup co-founded by a pair of University of Pittsburgh public health researchers that is attempting to model the spread of diseases such as COVID-19. According to John Cordier, CEO and co-founder of the company, “We are modeling the spread of COVID-19 across the population. It is quite clear that it is less about the disease than it is about the social dynamics. You might have two cities that have the same demographic profiles but based on policies, the virus could spread more in one place than another.” Epistemix’s models can relate the spread of the coronavirus to different social, political and economic factors across different spaces, making it possible to understand where flare-ups could occur, and why.
The platform has applicability beyond COVID-19, as well. “We can look at change in income, age and race demographics, and help gauge the likelihood of social unrest,” Cordier added. It can also model what changes in public policy would do to residents, much like it can for how changes in COVID mitigation policies will alter its spread. Even seemingly subjective qualities like public sentiment or even creativity and innovation can be modeled based on geographic information systems.
Get the GIS(t) of it
The sophisticated modeling functionality of Epistemix demonstrates the high end of GIS capabilities, but real estate teams don’t need to jump straight into the deep side of the pool to leverage GIS in their workflows. One of the more attainable ways to begin building GIS processes into your day-to-day comes by way of storytelling. Maps have long been a mainstay of how the real estate industry understands a property but now those same maps can be augmented with important data. So intuitive is the way we understand maps that incredibly complex changes in a data set can be quickly understood using an animated heat map.
According to Ann Marie Lowther, Account Executive for real estate at ESRI, mapping platforms can be a valuable way to display multiple other sources of non-cartographic data in a deliberate order and a carefully chosen context. “Instead of putting together a binder or PDF, you can share a story map. You can include other media here as well,” she said, such as photos, videos, spreadsheets or 3D models. Each of these data points or callouts can then be associated with a given location on the map, adding context to the information.
When presenting to an investment committee, or manager, or prospective buyers mapping comparable listings gives the ability to view proximities, travel times, and geographic relationships without having to interrupt the presentation type addresses into Google Maps. The Johns Hopkins COVID-19 map is run on ESRI software and shows the extent to which these tools can be scalable, allowing for a huge amount of data and simultaneous usage. Story maps are especially important to audiences that may not have a high level of familiarity with an area or those with very specific purposes for a property.
Map-based storytelling is certainly only the first step towards truly leveraging GIS technology but for teams with little background in GIS, it can be a compelling place to start. Smaller teams generally don’t have the resources to have a dedicated GIS specialist but tools are becoming increasingly easier to use, even easy enough for some of the less tech-minded real estate professionals. As tools become easier to use and more of the property industry becomes educated about GIS we will start to see smaller players be able to harness geospatial analysis in a way that was normally only possible for the largest firms. This could level the playing field by allowing firms to compete on how well they understand a geography and how well they are able to tell that story, rather than whether or not they can afford a GIS expert on staff.