Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »
GIS Without the Map
October 8th, 2011 by Susan Smith
Lamont Norman, global product manager – OnDemand, Geocoding & Risk Data of Pitney Bowes Insight, jokingly said that they “do GIS to people and they don’t know it,” in other words, they provide GIS without the map. This is common in the world of risk management, where what is important is a geocode of an address.
“We will take a geocode that is an address and return a latitude and longitude,” said Norman.
“That’s the first thing that’s key into all the risk management that happens. We provide a worldwide geocoding scenario, not just to the insurance market but to telecommunications, restaurant, retail and real estate markets, government, where we take an address and to best of our ability locate that address through latitude and longitude. We do this without using a desktop mapping tool, it’s done as an enterprise solution where we can do millions of these geocodes in an hour.”
Rather than dealing with a map, insurers make use of the geocode when they take on new customers. “If you’re applying for a new insurance policy, whether auto or home, they give you their address, and you start to locate that address, where it is on the globe,” said Norman. “Once we have that information, we start to determine the spatial risk related to that particular location, again, taking the insurance scenario we’ve located your address, we figured out the hurricane risk, wildfire, etc. whatever the insurer considers to be important, all without using a map. It’s easy to visualize with a map, where you bring up your property and you see how far it is from a flooding risk or from the wildfire risk. We allow insurers to basically do that without having to look at a map, and you don’t need a GIS expert to make those decision. GIS people can make decisions on other more difficult problems. Within an insurance agency or within a telecommunications agency, etc. we’re automating the GIS output to give you a spatial risk.”
This seems counter to the requirements of some industries that seek GIS to provide a visual display in the form of a map, that everybody can understand. Yet this GIS without the map is not new – other GIS companies provide this type of risk management product to their customers, usually insurers, telecommunications or real estate professionals who require it.
In speaking of risk management, both topics of floods and fires come up. Invariably, big wildfires which we have had many of this summer, are followed by flooding, largely because the vegetation that held the land in place is no longer there to protect it. Prior to the summer fires, floods threatened the Midwestern states and drove many citizens from their homes. How to better insure these citizens against catastrophic loss due to flood and fire is a growing challenge for risk management solution providers.
Pitney Bowes Insight is providing geocoding and accompanying risk data globally that customers can make use of once they have geocoded a location. They are providing the most recently updated flood data available on the market from FEMA. FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) allows users to take a look at flood risk. Up until now, the challenge with that has been not all that flood risk data has been readily available to the market because there are historical maps that need to be digitized, converted, edge matched etc. that you have with a national data set.
“What we released with FloodRisk Pro is a flood risk FEMA-based product that allows insurers and other companies to use that process I described to determine what the flood risk is. The process is Operational Business Geographics = GIS without the maps,” noted Norman.
Pitney Bowes will tell you the distance to the nearest FEMA flood zone, or if it’s in a FEMA flood zone, and what the distance is to the edge of that zone. The program will identify where the parcel central geocodes are and tell you the elevation so you can begin to determine if this particular parcel is above or below the flood zone. It will consequently give you a 3D understanding of the risk.
Obviously, this type of work with Operational Business Geographics is done in the insurance industry where PB Insight provides geocodes. To be able to provide complete flood risk data to the industry will be an added plus to those using their software for geocoding. They will have access to complete flood risk analysis rather than what FEMA has released or older products on the market.
Norman said the value they bring to the data outside geocoding is that they are able to add the third dimension which is the elevation and able to allow insurers or companies to quickly determine the flood risk by their own business rules.
Up to 30% of flooding damage reported is outside these special FEMA flood zones, and a lot of that is due to the flooding that has been completely modeled by FEMA, according to Norman. “What our customers are interested in is not whether a property is in a flood zone, they want to know if it’s near, to account for that 30%,” said Norman. “They are also interested in understanding for comprehensive auto, if there’s additional value there, because it does include flooding.”
Insurers typically route through NFIP, except in the cases of auto. If you’re an auto insurer and you provide comprehensive coverage you might want to know if the garage address is in or near a floodzone.
“When you’re dealing with very complicated precise data like flood and fire data, it’s very important to have a geocode that you have confidence in. That means when you put in an address you are putting in actual property,” said Norman. “We see value in that we’re able to use the actual property centroid and in some cases the actual property boundary with some additional software we have, to help customers understand, is all or some of that property at risk? Up until five years ago, this information was not readily available in the U.S. We have since started to make it available in a national dataset where we’re providing 73 million confirmed parcel centroid locations to our customers. In the case of wildfire, some areas have a higher wildfire risk than others – it is not like a zip code determination, it’s almost like a block group in terms of differentiation. Insurers and other hazard planners want to understand what that difference is.”
By “block group,” Norman means a city block – four to five blocks long and two blocks wide, which is a fairly detailed risk data polygon which will follow natural patterns, and is highly irregular. Geocoding has to be accurate for understanding both fire and flood risk. “If you’re off by 100 or 50 ft., you could end up with a very different wildfire rating or flood zone rating, and that can impact your resource planning for that particular location, and your insurance risk assessment,” said Norman.
While wildfires have not equaled hurricanes or earthquakes in terms of loss, they are becoming more significant. More people live near wildlands and have more assets threatened by fire. Global warming contributes to the number of wildfires that occur each year. “For our wildfire data which we’re planning to release by the end of this year, we’re actually able to provide enough information where insurers can confidently determine what the wildfire risk is,” said Norman. “What that means is that if they’re able to use our dataset, they’re able to come up with an accurate risk price for these properties.”
Norman quotes statistics that claim that wildfire damage will increase in the 21st century by up to 118%, primarily due to climate change, Most homes catch fire not directly from flame contact – they ignite from inside out due to airborne firebrands, for example, a piece of wood blowing in the air it goes out as much as two to three blocks from where the fire is actually burning, sucked into the vents in the house, then it burns from inside out. “With the increasing wildfire risk that is emerging in the market today it all begins with precise and highly accurate geocoding,” said Norman.
Pitney Bowes Insight works with very sophisticated consultants who understand fire modeling as well as fire science. This allows them to get a detailed view of fire risk using fire behavior modeling, historic wildfires and other factors. Currently the company has a governmentally based fire risk product designed expressly for the state of the California. The fire risk product they are developing now for launch at the end of 2011 will offer a greater scope.
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Category: Pitney Bowes Business Insight
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