A Guide to Real Estate Mapping and Analysis Tools

This article originally appeared in the 2017 Winter Terra Firma Magazine, the official publication of the REALTORS® Land Institute.

Smart land agents will embrace technology advances and use them not just to survive but to thrive. Others may cling to their brochures and rolodexes, hoping that they can continue to be successful because things were better in the old days and that’s how things have always been done. Unfortunately, history and my experience have shown that nostalgia and longing are rarely good business strategies, especially when it comes to real estate mapping.

Real estate technology innovation is booming. The first wave focused on residential real estate with companies producing solutions like Realtor.com, Zillow, RedFin and StreetEasy. The residential market was ripe for disruption because the Internet was a natural place to expand listing services, engage people through interactive digital marketing and differentiate the realtor’s business with better information, not just lawn signs.

Innovation in residential real estate led industry leaders in other markets to more broadly adopt technology. However, the uptake has been slower despite promises to make their businesses and the lives of their customers better. For many decades, there’s been no reason to change workflows or processes because immense wealth has been created without disrupting the status quo. However, in the past three years we’ve seen a sea change in technology.

It’s now far easier to use and delivers bigger benefits more quickly. Buyers expect an interactive, digital experience and marketing automation. How do you make sense of all the hype, especially if you are a small business owner who is not tech savvy? Above all, where do you start?

Drones: No Longer Just for Dramatic Video Shoots

The excitement around drones has increased immensely in the past year and with good reason. New Federal Aviation Administration rules have reduced uncertainty on who can fly and where and, more importantly, the technology is at a point where anyone can now use them for a small investment.

Drones used to be used exclusively in marketing real estate. A drone mounted camera can produce cost-effective shots of a property. For large, high-end homes or big expanses of land, dramatic videos let you immerse yourself and experience tree top flights. Today, that immersion comes in the form of virtual reality-like 3D interactive experiences that let you fly around and view the scene from any perspective. In the University of Oxford example, shown below, the drone flew multiple paths over the city. The raw video imagery is used to create a full 3D model of the buildings, including exquisite detail for the build frontages, rooflines, gargoyles and chimneypots. You can literally fly down the streets and lanes, and land in any courtyard to explore the buildings.

The same data feeds used to map Oxford can be used in land management to create terrain surfaces which show perspective and hillshading. This can be used to detect slopes, hollows, banks and hidden landscape features which are not obvious in aerial or satellite imagery. Low level drone flights also create very high resolution data which can show changes in vegetation and land development with high degrees of precision such as in this montage below where we not only can see where a new road has been laid but also changes to the height of vegetation and small hollows where water is ponding or eroding the land.

Immersive scenes are immensely valuable for supplementing existing online marketing. What’s more the video data can also provide new perspectives, often quite literally. I recently worked with a land broker who was selling a large tract of land along California’s Mendocino Coast.  She had a drone fly over the pasture and old growth forest, up fern filled gullies and fishing ponds. Only after did she realize that the views of the homestead from the private vineyard were missing. They had flown the house and grounds but had not flown towards the house over the vineyard. The great thing was that even though the drones had flown different routes, we could still recreate a full 3D model of the house and grounds. Rather than have a static video, our client created a virtual fly through along the rows of grapes glistening in late summer evening sun, and then up and over the house to show the full grandeur of the setting. Better still, her clients can take the same virtual tour or browse a set of interactive snapshots she has created. She didn’t need to organize another drone flight. Everything she needed to properly promote her ranch was in the data files the drone had collected, we just needed to process it.

Data in the Cloud – Everywhere for Everyone

We’ve all experienced Google Maps and Google Earth. They have changed how we find and view maps and land data. The revolution Google drove is for online data. Today, there are millions of map layers from every corner of the globe forming a Living Atlas of the World. Local, regional and national Governments, private companies and even crowdsourcing volunteers are publishing authoritative and personally collected data into open libraries which anyone can use.

In the United States we have Federal Government data on everything from cropland to wilderness areas, maps of geology, soils, landscape, forest, flood zones, wetlands and hundreds more. Every one of these is freely available to use for analysis and overlay. In many rural areas, the data is better and more useful than cities.

One of the most valuable data sets is satellite imagery. Every frame of Landsat data, which has been imaging our planet since 1972, is available online. This is a valuable source of land surface change information and provides insights into seasonal changes in vegetation, soil moisture, crop growth and much more.

Many satellites have collected data which has been used to collect a high-resolution terrain model of the world. Since this data is also open to everyone, land owners and consultants can use it to understand more about the property throughout the buying process. One common use is gaining an understanding of soil drainage, as it has an important impact on crop production together with water and fertilizer use. Terrain profiling tools, like those shown above, can provide detailed analysis on changes in topography, drainage direction and soil moisture variations. In the example, we can see how the land slopes across the mile-long profile. Even small features of a few feet can be understood by tracking the profile against the aerial imagery. It is possible to identify old stream beds and even the site of a small quarry and ditch.

Sketching, Markup and Marketing

Many land specialists just want simple tools to access land parcels and property data. Open map and data standards mean that many communities are sharing their parcel data as online map services or files. Desktop and online software allow you to upload and fuse these files, trace parcels lines and find out ownership details like those shown in this suburban example below. Map services are simple, syndicated data feeds which create layers for each one you open in free real estate mapping applications like Google Earth or ArcGIS Earth. These “services” are more than pictures. You can query them, see attributes and, in many cases, use them to draw property boundaries by sketching straight onto the map.

Map services also now support social media and online storage sites like Facebook, Photobucket and Flickr. Photos which have been captured with your GPS on your smart phone or tablet contain location data that these sites use, so that these photos can automatically be positioned with your map. Tools to change the color, transparency, outline and shape of any symbols allow you to create high quality digital and print materials with no additional software, as shown below.

You can drag and drop spreadsheets with property addresses or GPS coordinates onto a web browser automatically turn them into online maps. A few clicks, and no coding later, the same spreadsheet can become an interactive property promotion or marketing resource. Rather than creating and mailing out paper books, land specialist can now email links to their properties, so clients and prospects can browse them at their leisure. Since the real estate mapping services which underlie these apps are dynamic, they automatically change when new entries are added to the spreadsheet. Better yet, web analytics tools embedded on your website can tell you how many people are browsing your properties and which ones are the most popular. Having real time listings, web analytics and links to your CRM means you can better market your properties and keep your clients coming back for more.

The Real Estate Digital Revolution

The full impact of the digital revolution in real estate is yet to be seen. The huge improvements in the simplicity of building web apps, promoting properties through interactive marketing tools and using different map layers, are producing a strong movement towards empowering the consumer and land specialist alike. Today, buyers expect to be able to access online information and experience the property without having to visit in person. They are more discerning buyers with many choices for who they do business with.

Real estate mapping, analytics and marketing in the real estate industry are moving on, and fast. Shouldn’t you be making the most of it?

About the Author: Helen Thompson is responsible for global marketing strategies in the commercial business development team at Esri. Her twenty years of experience in applied spatial analysis has helped advance the understanding and use of spatial technology in business and society. She is a graduate of spatial science and computing at the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology and geography at Plymouth University.