Wisconsin Geospatial News

WLIA Conference Focuses on GIS and Economic Development

The WLIA (Wisconsin Land Information Association) regional conference in Neenah last week focused on the relationship between GIS and economic development. Approximately 90 people attended the two-day event, which included presentations by GIS and economic development experts from a variety of sectors.

University of Wisconsin Programs

Matt Kures, of UW-Extension’s Center for Community and Economic Development, provided numerous examples demonstrating the value of GIS and mapping for economic development. These included maps of unemployment rates over time and home foreclosure rates by census tract, delineation of trade areas and customer location data for targeted advertising, analysis of customer demographics, and assessments of supply-demand imbalances (as in the case of food deserts in Milwaukee). Kures also discussed how GIS can be used to assess regional competitive advantages in labor force characteristics, quality of life measures, and locations of natural resources. He explained how spatial analysis tools such as neighborhood analysis, spatial regression, and autocorrelation analysis can be used to identify industry clusters and regional labor markets.

Alvin Rentsch, of UW-Whitewater’s GIS Center, gave an overview of his center’s mission to support economic development efforts in a six-county region (Rock, Walworth, Kenosha, and Racine counties in Wisconsin, and Boone and Winnebago counties in Illinois) as part of a grant from the US Economic Development Agency. This work is being done within a regional collaboration known as the State of Ingenuity that seeks to provide entrepreneurial support for business development through shared expertise and resources. Rentsch discussed the GIS Center’s goals of developing tools and methods to help develop the economy in this region.

View from the State

Janet Ady, Executive Committee Member of the Wisconsin Economic Development Association (WEDA) and Chair of WIGICC’s Economic Development Working Group highlighted the fact that many economic development criteria, such as labor and transportation costs, are inherently geospatial. She pointed out that economic development has various dimensions, including business attraction, retention, and expansion, and that in all cases there is a need for data, analysis, and interpretation. She argued that the intersection of GIS and economic development is a “perfect storm” and that, to ensure validity of results, it is important that GIS experts are the ones developing maps and performing spatial analysis. Ady also demoed the new Locate in Wisconsin site selection tool originally spearheaded by WEDA and now being managed by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. Locate in Wisconsin combines commercial brokerage data along with demographic, workforce, and economic data and other GIS layers. It facilitates business attraction by providing a consistent statewide view of available commercial properties and associated socio-economic characteristics.

Brenda Hicks-Sorensen, Vice President for Economic and Community Development at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, discussed WEDC’s plans and direction for economic development efforts in the state. WEDC was created in January, 2011, superceding the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, and became operational on July 1. Hicks-Sorensen focused on several of WEDC’s main goals, including the creation of an aligned economic development network for workforce development, regional marketing, and small business development. This new “Accelerate Wisconsin” network is to be aligned along regional planning commission boundaries. In addition, Hicks-Sorensen highlighted the Locate in Wisconsin tool and discussed the central role of this tool in responding to clients’ requests, performing analyses, and working with state and local partners. The goal is to deploy it to 150 communities with a combined base of over 11,000 properties.


Dan Veroff, Director of UW-Madison’s Applied Population Lab, gave a demo on the US Census Bureau’s new American Fact Finder site. The Census Bureau intends this site to be a one-stop shop for Census Bureau products, including the 1990, 2000, and 2010 Decennial Censuses, the American Community Survey, and the Economic Census. The new site also has enhanced mapping features allowing users to visualize selected datasets and download TIGER data. The site features a Quick Start section to provide easy access to data, and reference map and address search tools. For customized searches, users can build a custom query by selecting specific topics, geographies, population groups, and industry codes.

On the commercial software side, Chris Liske and Nathan Aamot discussed Esri’s Business Analyst and Community Analyst software packages, while Jeremy Holt of ADC and Charlie Walker of the Chippewa County Economic Development Corporation demoed Eagl-i, ADC’s site selection tool.

Local and Regional Groups

Jessica Beckendorf, Associate Vice President of Economic Development for the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce (or Advance) focused on the synergies between GIS and economic development. She discussed economic gardening, whereby local businesses are cultivated job-by-job. Economic gardening can be data- and analysis-heavy, requiring assistance with analysis of market penetration, customer location, and competition. In terms of business attraction, Beckendorf indicated that fast responses are often needed when responding to client requests for information on sites, zoning, employers, demographics, industry clusters, and other factors. She advocated establishing key data layers to support these requests in a timely way. Beckendorf also focused on the importance of GIS analysis functions, such as retail trade analysis, drive time analysis, and using customer-level point of sales data.

Bob Mach of Mach IV Engineering and Surveying provided a private-sector perspective, focusing on the use of geospatial data for development and engineering projects. Mach emphasized the importance of high-resolution data, especially LiDAR, as a prerequisite for these projects. Adam Pfferle, GIS Specialist at East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission discussed the use of GIS and mapping at East Central RPC, which is a designated economic development district (EDD) by the US Economic Development Administration. Brad Elmer, Project Director at Thrive discussed activities at this economic development partnership, which is seeking EDD status. These individuals, each from his own perspective, emphasized the role and value of GIS, and the opportunities for further growth.

Common Themes

The conference highlighted many of the potential synergies between GIS and economic development, as well as examples of linkages between these two fields that are already occurring in the state. The economic development community understands that economic decisions often have an inherent geospatial component and clearly sees the need to reach out to the GIS community for assistance.

One theme that emerged from the conference is the need for geospatial data. Several speakers noted that economic development decision-makers want and need hard data to help ensure that their decisions are the right ones. In addition, their data needs can be quite diverse. This reflects the fact that economic development is about more than just sites and buildings, and includes activities such as economic gardening and business retention and expansion. Important data themes for these activities include physical infrastructure, demographics, workforce characteristics, commuting patterns, locations of aligned industries, and even orthophotos and LiDAR. Several speakers noted the need for quick responses to clients’ requests for information, suggesting that it would be valuable to invest in core datasets in advance rather than rebuilding them ad hoc each time a request is made.

Several speakers also noted the need to go beyond data and focus attention on analysis and tools. This area received special attention from the University of Wisconsin speakers. In addition to some of the classic tools like retail trade analysis, there is a need for new ways to view and analyze data to support specific questions and specific regional issues.

To help ensure the validity and accuracy of data, analyses, and visualizations, it is important that GIS experts play a key role in the process. Modern technology has made it easy for almost anyone to make a map, but GIS experts have insights into data sources, data quality issues, and mapping and spatial analysis methods that the average user does not. The economic development community recognizes that this expertise is important for successful collaboration.

Another important theme that emerged from the conference is the need for statewide datasets. This is because economic activity and economic development decision-making is inherently cross-jurisdictional. Many of the economic development organizations in the state are regional entities, reflecting the fact that adjacent counties are often linked in a functional economic region. Similarly, Locate in Wisconsin is a statewide tool, and the State of Ingenuity partnership even crosses state boundaries into Illinois. Several speakers suggested that economic development could be a catalyst to drive statewide data integration. For example, Brenda Hicks-Sorensen referred to statewide parcel data as the “holy grail” of datasets for economic development.

Clearly economic development is an area where GIS has much to offer in terms of data, map, and analysis support. On the flip side, economic development can help demonstrate the value of GIS, justify future investments in the technology, and help support efforts at data integration and sharing across the state. We will clearly be seeing more discussion on this topic in the near future.