The Use of Collaborative Spatial Decision Support Systems

David J. Grimshaw
School of Computer Studies,
University of Leeds,
Leeds LS2 9JT
Tel: 0113 233 5467


Mark Howes,
School of Psychology,
University of Leeds,
Leeds LS2 9JT


This paper provides a position statement on one of the research topics identified by initiative 17, namely ,,the design and implementation of methods to improve decision-makers' interaction with spatial analysis tools, including modelbase management systems, visualization and display tools, and group-based user interfaces." Within this general area the paper is focused on the development and use of visualisation tools. The paper puts forward a research agenda within this area based on a proposal submitted to the EPSRC in the UK.

Business problem definition

Managers and business people are frequently overloaded with information. As the information explosion continues, with an increasing number of datasets available, there is a demand for the ,,right information at the right time[[perthousand]]. How can complex datasets, some with built in levels of uncertainty, be transformed into useable information to support managerial decision making? This problem is a key issue for management in all organisations.

A more specific formulation of this general problem can be given by way of an example. When an automobile manufacturing company wishes to rationalise its dealer network it has to model the attractiveness of potential and actual locations, taking into account the population characteristics, competition, the road network and other topographic characteristics, and so on. Similar problems, involving retail companies in location decisions, or banks in merger and acquisition deals all share a reliance on modelling complex fuzzy spatial data. These locational aspects of business strategies might include the merger of two distribution networks, the planning of a new distribution network or the optimisation of an existing distribution network. The use of geographical information systems (GIS) and more specifically spatial decision support systems (SDSS), is widespread in industries such as retailing, financial services, and automotive manufacturing.

Many commercially available GIS software packages lack the kinds of spatial analysis and modelling required by business users. In cases where the spatial models are developed as a one-off application for a focused business application, feedback from users suggests that they are used less than their potential. How can users benefit from more sophisticated models at a time when the availability and cost of data is exploding rapidly whilst ensuring that greater understanding is derived from the modelling process?

The problem is a significant one in terms of the potential benefits to the research users. It has been estimated by Frost and Sullivan (1994) that the growth in worldwide markets for geographical information systems will grow to US$3.8 billion by 1999 - a compound growth rate of 21% per annum. At the level of the individual firm, or local economy the impact of locational decision making, for example the estimated benefits of improving the location of a supermarket, is in the order of [[sterling]]30 million.

Research background

This research proposal explores the above significant business problem by building on the earlier work of the Usable Spatial Information Systems (USIS) project funded by the ESRC and carried out at the University of Loughborough. Examining organisational type, the Loughborough researchers, Davies and Medyckyj-Scott (1993) noted that organisations differed significantly in the suitability of their GIS for their tasks. Commercial organisations, being more recent users of GIS, were thought not to have the functionality and tailored user interfaces that, for instance, utilities had.

Spatial interaction models have been used for the past 25 years or so (Wilson 1968). The increased power of modern computer technology has brought these models within the reach of business for the solving of location problems such as how to rationalise a branch network after a merger or acquisition. GIS have offered the basic opportunity to understand where customers live and how long they are prepared to travel. The display of data against a map as ,,wallpaper[[perthousand]] leaves the user with impressionistic information that has to be interpreted by the human brain (Grimshaw 1994). The modelling is done in a ,,black box[[perthousand]] from a user point of view. This research aims to provide users with a visualization of the model. Two parts will be studied: firstly, the observation of users working with existing models, leading to a greater understanding of how people perceive the spatial concepts involved; secondly, developing prototype visualizations of spatial interaction models. Bailey (1994:35) identified that there would be benefits in visualization of these models, for example in terms of identifying outlying flows and examining the fit of the model within the sub-region to identify the possible importance of factors not included in the model.

The Scientific Visualization initiative of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) recognised the potential of visual tools being integrated into modelling. Visualization can be used to analyse as well as illustrate spatial information (Buttenfield and Weber 1993). In current GIS environments users run models in background, whilst the map visualization is limited to illustration. There is little opportunity for the user to interact with the map to specify, for example, intuitive constraints. There is a real need for research combining graphical design with empirical testing and evaluation (Buttenfield and Weber, 1993).

Examining the cognitive understanding of individual users is a necessary but insufficient base for our research because users are making, or contributing to decision making in groups. Research in the area of decision support systems (DSS) has made a useful distinction between DSS which helps the decision maker sort out their peceptions, beliefs and preferences in order to make a choice after the information gathering stage, and Computer Supported Co-operative Work (CSCW) which supports the communication and implementation stages of the decision making process (French 1992). The idea of ,,Distributed Cognition[[perthousand]] (Dillenburg & Self 1992) acknowledges that group decision making can be supported by tools which allow explicit representation and manipulation (vizualisation) of shared information.

Research interest in these problems have been intensified recently. It is clear from the literature that there are visualization technologies available but there needs to be more work on the involvement of users in order to gain a cognitive match, between the users, capabilities and the system display. Goodchild et al (1992) argue that visualization is the key to user participation in the determination of key spatial dependence parameters in models of uncertainty. To date there has been little research into the design of usable GIS visualization (Davies & Medyckyj-Scott 1994). The intention of the proposed research is to bring together a realistic examination of user needs and match these with appropriate visualization tools.

Aims and objectives

The overall aim is to improve the usability of SDSS by business and industry. This will provide enhanced knowledge about the design of systems taking into account cognitive factors at the individual and group decision making level. The specific objectives are:

Research questions

In order to reach the above objectives some information on the current practice of organisations is needed. The questions below are meant to be illustrative rather than comprehensive. The order of these research questions is seen as significant, reflecting a progressive probing of the questions surrounding task orientation, task representation, prototyping and cognitive load.

  1. What are the factors that determine usability of spatial decision support systems?
  2. How do users perceive spatial data models?
  3. How can visualization be used to improve spatial decision support systems?
  4. What are the constraints, imposed by cognition, in designing SDSS?

Research design

The choice of research approach is an important issue which must be determined by the object of the research rather than the ,,house style[[perthousand]] of the institution or the norms of the contributory disciplines (Galliers 1992). Given the focus of the research on improving the design of the systems, a traditional research design from the Information Systems perspective might have taken a technically oriented view. From a Psychology point of view much cognitive science has concentrated on the perceptions of the individual. We take the view that information systems must be viewed within a socio-technical perspective. Key influences on the use of systems are interpretation and power (Hirschheim and Klien 1992). To properly understand the role of the technology within the organisation we need to take a process view (Scarbrough and Lannon 1988). Information systems in general and decision support systems in particular need to be understood in the context of the organisation and group decision making.

Hence our research design must be influenced by organisational psychology, information systems, and computing methods. Our business partner for this research is GMAP Ltd., a University of Leeds owned company providing spatial decision support systems to banks, building societies, motor vehicle manufacturers and retail groups. GMAP will provide access to client organisations, software, data, staff, and other resources necessary to ensure a satisfactory completion of the project

At a fundamental level the systems we are proposing to study enable decision makers to attribute meaning to data. Perceptions and meanings in the context we wish to study are problematical. As business organisations face a continuingly changing uncertain environment, they have to rethink the meanings attributed to their world (Checkland 1988). Thus a process approach, using prototyping to provide feedback to the end users, is proposed.


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David Grimshaw is Senior Lecturer in Information Systems at the University of Leeds. Previously at Warwick Business School, University of Warwick. Current research interests include the use of geographical information by business and industry. He is author of Bringing GIS into Business, published by Longman and has published many papers in academic journals and the professional press. A contributor to many international conferences, David was on the Steering Committee for the First European Conference on GIS in Business held in Amsterdam, 1994. He is a Founding Member of the AGI Special Interest Group on GIS in Business, a member of the GIS Panel of the Royal Town Planning Institute and was recently appointed to a Government Advisory Panel on national land use databases.

David has wide teaching experience, with undergraduates, post-experience and executive programmes. He has also taught in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Portugal, Russia and Singapore. He has been Visiting Fellow at Curtin University, Australia and the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis, State University of New York at Buffalo. Currently Visiting Professor at the International Management School, St.Petersburg and at the Universiti Utara Malaysia.

As an independent consultant David has advised many companies on strategic information systems planning and on geographical information systems.


Mark Howes is Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Psychology, School of Psychology, University of Leeds. Previously Researcher at Manchester Business School, Demonstrator at University of Liverpool, and Lecturer at University of Leeds. Research experience - 10 years Applied Cognitive Psychological research in Human-Computer Interaction, predominantly in medical applications, in collaboration with applications users and commercial systems producers. Research grants totalling over half million pounds, mainly from EU medical and health programmes, but also from ESPRIT and VALUE programmes, Research Council and commercial sources.