On a recent vacation, I found that the investment advisory profession traveled along, though not always in the most obvious way. In a pub one night deep in the Scottish Highlands, I met a nurse from Glasgow who had a relative in New York who was living in a three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, but was planning to move to New Jersey for more space. More space than a three-bedroom on the tony upper East Side? He must be a hedge fund manager, I ventured. The Glaswegian was flabbergasted. “How did you know that?” she sputtered, impressed with my insight. I imagine many of you would not have been so impressed with my “insight” and would have guessed the same, at least those of you with some rudimentary knowledge of New York City rent levels, and then considering which “profession” is flush with cash these days.

At that same pub I spoke to a man who taught social studies in the local high school but who emphasized that his duties did not include teaching geography, which he equated to “colouring in” shapes on a map. I commiserated with him, but would soon think differently about geography. Upon my return, I attended a neighborhood 4th of July barbeque where my friend Brian, the history department chair, was filling me in on the latest issues in academe. I learned from him a new acronym: GIS, Geographic Information Systems. He told me it’s a very popular course of study in his university, and that those who graduate with GIS credentials are gobbled up by all manner of major businesses. According to the USGS, the U.S. Geological Survey, “The power of a GIS comes from the ability to relate different information in a spatial context and to reach a conclusion about this relationship.” From my layman’s perspective, it seems that GIS can be used in environmental studies, for instance, by matching a point on a map–say the swampy area at the end of your street–with all the digital information that exists about that area: its hydrology, geology, its proximity to farmland or road surfaces or sources of potential pollution like a gas station. The key is that this digital information is placed on a relatively easily understandable visual–a map–which then guides your decision-making. You might already see the business applications: GIS allows a Home Depot, say, to determine exactly where it will build its next store, based on the number of potential customers in a certain area, and the access by existing roads, and the proximity of its suppliers. The explosion of digitization of all sorts of information makes this interaction between databases possible. It also makes possible the application in your business: big financial services companies already use GIS software to verify the addresses of customers or prospects before a mailing is sent out, for instance. Others use GIS to target a mailing to folks whose demographics or geographics suggest they may be attracted specifically to buying annuities or life insurance.

As independent advisors, your location within the community helps differentiate you and anchor you, much like advisor Steve Robbins in our cover story this month, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the companies you do business with–and the companies you compete against–are already using this technology to their advantage. Someday you will, too.