Mapping Gimmick or Gold Dust

The following is an editorial we have put together for a property construction/engineering magazine discussing the value of mapping to the property industry.  We thought it might be an interesting read ...

Will the emergence of freely available satellite and aerial imagery down to street level revolutionise the property industry?  Almost everyone now seems to be aware of Google Earth but, having checked out their house, their neighbours’ houses and a couple of interesting sites, the “wow” factor often fades.

However, for a number of organisations offering mapping services and websites, this is just the beginning. It can enable even small developers to benefit from using 3D visuals of their proposed buildings, embedded into a map of the surrounding geography, to market property to potential customers.  This helps customers to understand what their dream home may look like, before a single foundation is dug, and makes their buying decision easier.

These types of 3D visuals, and interactive maps, used to be only the domain of large developers, with deep pockets, who could justify the marketing expense.  Often these techniques were reserved for overseas developments where the cost of a customer site visit was prohibitive and selling off-plan presented challenges to customers - “I just can’t visualise the property in its context!”  However, recent advances in satellite imagery and mapping technology may lower the cost from tens of thousands to just a few thousand pounds for a whole development.

It is not just Google either.  Microsoft has been investing heavily in its Virtual Earth product to compete with the brand dominance of Google.  In addition to satellite imagery (arguably better in the UK than Google) they offer “Bird’s Eye” views in some areas of the UK, and in April launched 3D city landscapes (Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Gloucester, Plymouth, Swindon and Wolverhampton).  Microsoft are even working on "street-side" views in the coming year, starting with London, using specially equipped camera vehicles to take full 360 degree photos at street level.

It is not all good news though.  Key criticisms of this technology are the variable quality of the satellite images, the age of the images and the speed of the technology.  However, huge investments are being made in programs to improve the quality of the imagery and, as more and more homes benefit from high speed broadband, these barriers to use will be lowered all the time.

So how will organisations in the building and engineering industry use this mapping technology to create competitive advantage? Well, expect to see more use of websites to demonstrate the value of properties, more use of computer visuals within property marketing offices, more 3D visuals to form part of planning submissions and more estate agents offering this as part of their competitive pitches.  As Brian Norman, technical director of Earthware Ltd (who specialise in interactive mapping solutions) puts it, “We are moving from an era where maps were just gimmicks to one where they are integral to communicating complex visual information to customers in a very intuitive way.” If Brian is correct, expect to see maps become more and more a core part of how we communicate key messages in the industry.