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Using GIS to solve problems

Ben Farster, director of enterprise location intelligence for Walgreens, spoke about how the company leverages GIS to make decisions about labor, real estate, and disaster aid during a recent Center for Spatial Business speaker event.

How is Walgreens leveraging geographic information systems (GIS) to grow and effectively serve customers? The company’s Director of Enterprise Location Intelligence Ben Farster answered this question and more at a recent U of R Center for Spatial Business virtual speaker series event.

Housed in the School of Business & Society, the Center for Spatial Business seeks to incorporate spatial thinking and the use of GIS into the business programs at the University of Redlands.

“The Center stimulates research and education in location analytics by focusing on applications for researchers, practitioners, and the community at large,” said Professor and Director of the Center Jim Pick before introducing Farster.

After studying GIS at Carthage College, Farster began working as an intern at Walgreens in the early 2000s. His career with the pharmacy giant evolved from roles as market analyst and manager to his current director position, which gives him a unique perspective on how GIS technology has changed at Walgreens over nearly two decades.

“When I was hired, Walgreens was growing dramatically,” he said. “I remembered hearing that we were growing at about 450 stores a year at that time. It was said that we were opening a store about every 19 hours.”

Consequentially, the company needed technology to keep up with and eventually facilitate that growth. Farster detailed Walgreens’ journey from using desktop programs to company servers, to cloud applications by adopting Esri’s ArcGIS Online software, and arriving most recently at an enterprise-wide spatial system.

Walgreens uses GIS technology to make strategic decisions about labor allocation, real estate, acquisitions, and more.

Walgreens uses GIS technology to make strategic decisions about labor allocation, real estate, acquisitions, and more. In 2018, when Walgreens acquired Rite Aid, the location intelligence team used labor capacity analysis to see how the company could optimize the transfer of inventory from store to store. Each year, the team inventories Walgreens’ real estate portfolio to effectively renegotiate lease agreements or relocate stores. Working across departments specializing in mergers, market analysis, information technology, and healthcare planning, the company examines opportunities to determine whether a decision will lead to further growth.

Additionally, Walgreens has historically assumed a critical responsibility in tracking and responding to disasters. When hurricanes struck Florida and Texas, Farster’s team developed risk maps and weather feeds to track damage and power outages in affected areas. When Hurricane Harvey battered Texas in 2017 and required evacuees to shelter at a Houston convention center, local Walgreens employees used the company’s maps to safely deliver medicine and supplies by avoiding flooded areas.

More recently, Farster noted, the company has aided in efforts to combat COVID-19 by using location analytics to establish testing sites, clinics, and effectively distribute vaccines. Utilizing Center for Disease Control data, Walgreens identified socially vulnerable areas prone to devastation and prioritized patient care in those areas.

“To date, we have 7,200 locations that have performed 33 million COVID-19 tests and have given 60 million vaccines,” said Farster.

Thanks to evolving GIS technology, Farster and his team no longer have to wrangle data from multiple areas of business infrastructure. With cloud-based portals, resources and tools are gathered in one place, allowing data to be scaled and adapted to respond to real-world problems.

The Center is currently in its 10th year, and the speaker series continuously facilitates partnerships with other companies, institutions, and organizations to encourage the understanding of using GIS for business success.

Next up in the Center for Spatial Business speaker series is Jan Kestle, president and founder of Environics Analytics. The February 15 event is free and open to the public. For more information on the series, visit the Center’s website.