1996 Sep 01

Database America ProfitZone
Decisionmark Corporation Proximity

David M. Raab
DM News
September, 1996

Simplicity is very much in fashion among software designers. After years of can-you-top-this feature wars to capture the most demanding users, developers have realized that there is another, possibly much larger, group of people who only want to do a few basic tasks as easily as possible.

Mapping software–more formally known as Geographic Information Systems, or GIS–illustrates the situation. The industry is still ruled by dreadnaught battleships like MapInfo and Atlas GIS, whose heavy guns can take on anything from optimizing delivery routes to planning an urban renewal project. But darting under their bows are little speedboats like Map’n’Go trip-planning software. Somewhere in between–big enough to carry real firepower, but easier to pilot than the giants of the fleet–are systems built especially for marketers.

ProfitZone (Database America, 800-223-7777; 201-476-2927) is a good example of a specialized mapping system. The system is dedicated to a single task–managing customer and prospect lists. In mapping terms, these are considered “points”, as opposed to vectors (i.e., lines, such as streets), areas (things with boundaries, such as counties or states), or images (such as satellite photographs). Each record on a list is represented by a physical point on the map, the latitude and longitude of its address. All other data is linked to that point. ProfitZone makes it easy to manage the points and pretty much ignores everything else.

The system does this by making nearly all of its capabilities immediately visible to the user. It employs the familiar Microsoft Windows interface, simultaneously displaying the menu bar, a tool bar, active map and map legend, table of selected records (if any) and details of the currently active record (if any). The map legend shows the data files that are present, which are referred to as “layers” in accord with standard GIS terminology. Double clicking on a layer’s entry in the legend calls up a dialog box that allows the user to limit the records that are displayed for the layer. This “filter” is currently limited to simple relationships (greater than/less than/equals, contains, begins with, from/to range) and two data fields, although the vendor plans to allow more fields in the next release.

The same dialog box also controls how the records are displayed on the screen, allowing different symbols for different segments within the layer, such as income ranges or SIC groups. The user can change the size, shape, color and caption of each symbol and can change the segment definitions (for example, changing the breakpoints of income ranges). To make things easier, ProfitZone offers predefined sets of symbols and automatically enters the starting point of each range based on the ending point of the previous range.

One layer at a time is active on the map. Users can select records with a circle tool that defines a radius around a point, by drawing a free-hand “lasso”, or by specifying a driving radius in minutes or miles. The drive calculations are derived from a database that is aware of major roads, one-way and left-turn only streets, exits and natural boundaries. It does not adjust for time of day, traffic conditions or short cuts through local streets.

Once a set of records is selected, it also appears on the map legend and can itself be segmented through symbols. Up to ten layers and selections can be present on the same map. Buttons on the legend determine which layers’ and segments’ symbols are visible on the map itself.

Sets of selected records within the same layer can be combined by taking records in both sets, in either set, or in one set but not the other. This requires somewhat non-intuitive use of the shift, control and alt keys. But it does allow more complicated selections, such as a “donut” of records more than five miles but less than ten miles from a given point. Records from different layers cannot be combined directly, although they could be exported and merged outside of the system.

The data associated with the selected records can be viewed in the table window. Users can sort the records, change the order and width of the displayed fields, and scroll through the list. In addition, the system can display the maximum, minimum, average and sum of any numeric field for all the selected records–particularly useful when trying to understand the characteristics of the selected items. Users can select a record in the table and see it highlighted on the map; they can also point to a location on the map and highlight its entry in the table, or enter a specific address and have the system find its record. When a single record is selected it will also appear in a record window that shows all of its data. The set of selected records can be exported as ASCII files or in a ProfitZone format that allows them to be used as layers in other maps.

The system provides a “ruler” to measure the straight-line distance between two points, as well as zoom in, zoom out and panning capabilities. The proprietary mapping engine draws screens very quickly–typically under one minute, depending on the number of points to be displayed.

ProfitZone stores its data in a modified form of the Microsoft Access (that is, dBASE) format. However, the system does not have to import data to use it. Instead, it can read dBASE-compatible files that have latitude and longitude already coded on them, or use a “linker” provided with ProfitZone to read the addresses, create a separate “key” file with Zip+4 latitude and longitude for each record, and link this to the original table. All the data in that table then becomes available. The linker will code 10,000 records in four to five minutes, can handle addresses with or without Zip codes, and will read ASCII files by October 1996. But exact street-address coding or large input files must be sent to Database America or otherwise handled outside the system.

Although ProfitZone is an impressive piece of software, Database America puts at least as much emphasis on the data that comes with it. The base product ships with a CD containing an overview of the U.S., including state boundaries, major cities, larger bodies of water, national and state parks, and major highways. Purchasers also acquire one or more regional maps with detailed local street networks, major buildings such as libraries, universities and historical sites, and natural features such as parks and lakes. The software and national base maps cost $1,895 with detail for one region and $5,675 with detail for the entire country.

ProfitZone buyers also qualify for deep discounts on Database America’s 10.5 million name business file and its 95 million household consumer file. The business file, including contact names and phone numbers, costs $9,995 per region or $30,975 for the entire country for one year of unlimited use. This includes three quarterly updates and a $1,500 credit for geocoding the buyer’s own names. This is about 1/10th the standard rate of $25 to $30 per thousand. The consumer data is offered without names and addresses, at $1,200 per state or $20,000 for the entire country, again including three quarterly updates. Customers are then given a wholesale rate ($15 to $18 per thousand) on name/address rentals.

Proximity (Decisionmark Corp., 800-365-7629) is designed to offer map-based analysis that is easy enough for marketers to use without the help of trained specialists. It manages points, lines, and areas and will display selected records in a table. It can assign different map symbols to different subsets of the selected records, and will graph the number of records in each subset. To help with formal presentations, it gives users detailed control over the appearance of printed output, allowing them to combine maps, tables and graphs on the same page and to control the size, font, color and placement of map labels. It also provides latitude/longitude coding down to the exact street address, a powerful query builder that can select records based on mathematical formulas, and a data manager that can make elements from multiple files look like a single table to the user. Maps can take several minutes to redraw and the system is missing a few functions that would be useful, such as automatically labelling all elements of a certain type (e.g. shopping centers), finding a specific record based on its address, or calculating summary statistics for a group of selected records. Nor does it support drive-time calculations. But over-all it provides an acceptably broad set of capabilities.

However, the system requires a fair degree of effort to set up and learn–perhaps more than can be expected of a non-technical marketing user. For example, adding a file requires separate processes to append latitude and longitude, to import the name and address, to import any other data, to define the data as a “major” table, and then map the table to an associated “view”. This is a considerable amount of work with much room for error. The system also requires that records in any given table be presented with a unique ID already assigned, which may require relatively sophisticated data manipulation when working with records from multiple mailing lists. The user interface itself also takes careful study, relying on non-obvious conventions such as clicking on a small diamond to change symbol definitions.

Proximity is priced at $1,995, which includes a large amount of data including highways, railroads, bodies of water and local streets; census demographics to the block group level; boundaries by state, county, Zip, census block group, and other areas; and landmarks such as parks, universities, airfields, etc. Decisionmark can also help users to purchase other lists, including business and consumer names, at standard commercial rates.

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David M. Raab is a Principal at Raab Associates Inc., a consultancy specializing in marketing technology and analytics. He can be reached at draab@raabassociates.com.

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