The Friday Interview: Eamonn Doyle, ESRI Ireland

17 Jun 2005

If promoting an unambiguous message to your target audience is one of the hallmarks of good marketing, then ESRI Ireland does not score very well. Eamonn Doyle (pictured), who was appointed principal consultant at the geographic information systems (GIS) provider in March, concedes that the name clash with a certain well-known economic think-tank is a little unfortunate but argues that the people who would tend to be interested in GIS technology know the difference and that’s what matters most.

ESRI is based in California and enjoys something akin to a Microsoft level of dominance in the GIS industry despite the efforts of a range of various technology suppliers, large and small, to muscle into its space.

A common misconception about GIS (and one shared by this writer admittedly) is that GIS is a relatively new technology. ESRI’s history proves otherwise. The firm actually launched its first commercial GIS software, Arc/Info, back in 1982. Originally running on a mainframe platform, the technology has evolved through the PC era and is now built on the very latest internet technologies.

ESRI Ireland was established in 2002 and serves the 32 counties via offices in Dublin and Belfast. It is projecting a turnover of €5m in 2005 and annual growth rates of between 10pc and 15pc. Unlike its namesake, ESRI Ireland is not about generating information as such but about presenting it in a visual way, via mapping tools.

Prior to joining ESRI Ireland, Doyle was principal consultant with Fujitsu Consulting (formerly ICL) where he was involved in several major GIS projects including the Dublin Regional Water Network GIS, the Department of Marine Natural Resources Enterprise GIS and the analysis phase of the Marine Institute Marine Data Repository project.

That this roster of clients is in the public arena is not a coincidence, for this is where most GIS deployments to date have been. In the mid-Eighties, long before ESRI Ireland was set up, Coillte, the national forestry management agency, bought GIS technology directly from ESRI in the US. Coillte uses the software to map all of its forest holdings and generate its harvesting plans off that information.

Several other public bodies have followed in Coillte’s footsteps. The Department of Environment and Local Government uses ESRI technology to manage planning applications. As every application has to be referred to the Department to ensure it doesn’t impinge on a national monument, GIS is used to map the location of every such monument and then local planning inspectors can look at the mapping information to ensure no infringement is taking place.

Another significant user is the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, which uses GIS to manage fish stocks. GIS visually represents information that’s submitted on fisheries’ logbooks, allowing Department personnel to calculate how much of a given species has been caught in any particular geographical area.

If the public sector has been an avid user of GIS to date, the private sector has so far been slow to follow. This has not been for wont of opportunity, says Doyle, who points out that a wide range of industry sectors, from distribution to utility firms, would benefit considerably from using GIS. And several are already doing so. For example, telecoms provider Chorus uses GIS in combination with the national address database or GeoDirectory – a joint venture between An Post and The Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI) – to achieve the optimal positioning of transmitters in relation to population distribution. Chorus will also know via the GeoDirectory who lives within the cell catchment area and can send them direct marketing information around the services being offered via that transmitter.

Unfortunately, such examples are few and far between. What has hampered the uptake of GIS in the business world, Doyle believes, has been the twin perceptions that the technology is too specialist and too expensive. But as the technology has become more open standards-based and entry-level price points have dropped, GIS is starting to go mainstream, he feels.

“There used to be a reticence on the part of IT departments within many organisations because they saw it as specialist technology. Now they see it is browser based, running on standard relational database management systems and it is web services oriented. Increasingly organisations are seeing GIS as part of the information architecture.” As a result, he says, “more and more organisations have been seeing the value of GIS to their business”.

What will help its adoption by the private sector, he feels, is the scheduled introduction of postcodes in early 2008: businesses will want to use the postcodes system to better target their customers and will be keen to use GIS systems to map these targets. Although GeoDirectory can already achieve this and to a much finer level of detail than postcodes can, it is a relatively expensive service that is out of the reach of many small businesses in particular, argues Doyle.

“One of the issues for GIS has always been that the benefits have been very easy to show but the costs have been difficult to justify, especially for SMEs. So anything such as postcodes and the type of internet-ready mapping that the OSI mapping is making available will change the cost-benefit analysis in favour of the adoption of GIS within small firms.”

The wider adoption of GIS by small firms is likely to transform the whole image of the technology in years to come. Whereas now it is associated with large-scale public sector projects, in future it could be something that the local pizza delivery firm uses to see whether the people ringing in with an order are within its delivery area.

By Brian Skelly