Faculty members and students at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater are embarking on a data-mapping project to help spur business growth in the region.
Merging demographic data with maps and imagery, the new Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Center, housed in Upham Hall on the UW-Whitewater campus, will provide businesses and organizations with new ways to reach customers and strengthen their operations.
"Think of it as integrating Microsoft Excel and Adobe Photoshop," said project manager Alvin Rentsch. "We have all this data out there. If we can depict that as a meaningful image, the possibilities for business growth are endless."
Imagine, for instance, if a T-shirt company in Wisconsin could map all people who tweeted about the Green Bay Packers Super Bowl win. They might find a contingent of fans in a city far from Wisconsin - people hungry for Packers memorabilia.
This mapping, coupled with expert analysis, can help businesses form new plans, diversify their operations, and open doors for start-up companies and entrepreneurs looking to get a foothold in a particular market.
Increasingly, consumers want to know where products and services are located in relation to where they are. Social media sites like FourSquare, Twitter and other location-based technologies are making this kind of information a daily component of people's lives.
"Eighty percent of everything has a spatial component," Rentsch said. "If businesses can tap into that environment, they have another avenue for success."
This visual way of looking at data has applications beyond business. Universities can use the tools to analyze enrollment numbers and find new ways to recruit students; counties can monitor groundwater quality by mapping polluted or unsafe wells; farmers can track wolf populations to prevent livestock loss.
UW-Whitewater is currently administering a three-year, $5.9 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. This "State of Ingenuity" project focuses on job growth and investment in six counties along the Wisconsin-Illinois state line and allocates $500,000 to create and operate the GIS Center at UW-Whitewater.
Eric Compas, assistant professor of geography and geology, is director and faculty representative of the center. "We're undertaking several tasks: utilizing online mapping tools to engage in better decision-making in the six-county region, creating training opportunities, looking at supply chain issues and providing custom analyses for businesses," he said.
Undergraduate students at UW-Whitewater will assist on real-world projects for clients. Nine students, working as paid interns, will hone their GIS skills - everything from cartographic design to data development.
Rentsch said experience at the center will give these students a leg up when applying for jobs in the growing fields of geomapping and geoscience.
Rentsch, who received his master's degree in GIS from UW-Madison, spent 13 years in the Army, first as a member of the 3rd Ranger Battalion and then as a staff sergeant in Army special operations.
"I learned the importance of providing the best information for the decision-makers," he said.
It's a strategy Rentsch and the GIS center plan to provide for regional companies as they map and analyze data for business decision-makers.
Top photo - Students Justin Porst, Tyler Caulum and Adric Preuschl work on computers at UW-Whitewater's GIS lab in Upham Hall, while program manager Alvin Rentsch offers direction. Bottom photos - Sara Metcalf, senior and Christopher Berryman, junior, use a laser range finder and Trimble 6000 series GeoXH to gather data for a UW-Whitewater mapping project.