Friday, September 30, 2011

Location Intelligence and Civil War

Everything old is new again. Location intelligence seems to be the new kid on the block, but it doesn't take too much research to find clear examples of the effective use of location intelligence throughout history.

Susan Schulten, writing in The New York Times, tells us that Frederick Law Olmsted (perhaps best known as the designer of New York's Central Park), working with an abolitionist journalist named Daniel Goodloe, published an 800-page volume called The Cotton Kingdom that made the economic argument against slavery. At the same time, they used the 1850 Census to create a map of the cotton kingdom.

Although the motivation for the book and map were certainly moral, their arguments were economic, because their target audience was not like-minded abolitionists, but the British public, who were worried about the supply of cotton to their mills, and ultimately about their jobs.

The 800-page book had enormous influence, but the map, which summarized those 800 pages succinctly and communicated the authors' message in an instant, had immediate impact:
...the map used Census data to illuminate Southern strengths and resources. Olmsted and Goodloe identified two variables on the map: the relationship of the free and slave population and the production of cotton. They separated areas where slaves outnumbered freemen, and the reverse. Then they classed regions according to high, medium and low output, shrewdly leaving readers to conclude just how inefficient slave labor really was. In most cases, the areas of high production had relatively low slave populations. Those areas shaded as highly productive but without corresponding slave populations were, in their view, direct evidence against slavery.
Olmsted and Goodloe weren’t the first to say that slavery was a doomed system, but they were the first to use cartography to make their case, first to the British, and then to their fellow Americans.
The impact of this piece of location intelligence may have been a factor in keeping Britain at arms length in the U.S. Civil War.

Paul Krugman noted in his comments on the article that location intelligence was also used in the Civil War by General William T. Sherman to plan his famous (or infamous) March to the Sea. Instead of taking the most direct route as recommended by his superiors, Sherman studied census records to determine which route would best supply his troops and animals with food.

So the use of geospatial data to gain competitive advantage is nothing new. However, modern technology is liberating that geospatial data, making it available to enterprises of all size, and helping them realize competitive advantage.

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