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July 21, 2011

It's difficult to ignore that we are living in the information age. Just 10 years ago, it would have taken weeks or months to manually gather data at a great expense, but that same data is now available for download instantly on the Internet. The breadth and depth of the information literally at your fingertips can quickly become overwhelming. For litigation experts, helping clients make sense of the onslaught of digital details is a pivotal factor in the outcome of their cases. With Geographic Information Systems (GIS), this once-complex task is being simplified.

By definition, GIS is specialized software that allows users to visually display and analyze information in real time fashion on an interactive map or, ultimately, in the form of a static map. Data stored in large databases, sometimes containing hundreds of thousands or even millions of records, can be readily viewed and explored in ways that were unattainable in the past. When information such as plaintiff properties, soil sampling results and land use are plotted on a map, patterns are quickly illuminated and the facts become much more meaningful than they are in a tabular format.

GIS gives users the ability to view, interpret and visualize geographic data to uncover patterns and trends in the form of maps and charts. Understanding the spatial relationship of this information lets litigation experts perform analyses and test theories that are impossible to do otherwise. Such map-based analyses can be pivotal for clients in a broad range of industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, retail, real estate, energy, construction materials and utilities.

Increasing Efficiency and Effectiveness
GIS is a crucial component of an effective litigation strategy throughout the lifecycle of a case – from processing information and crafting an expert's opinions during discovery to preparing exhibits that will be shared throughout trial or submitted to opponents during settlement negotiations. As a web-based tool, GIS is also an invaluable form of communication between experts, counsel and other team members.

In the discovery phase of a lawsuit, an expert must immediately determine what data is available and how it can be obtained and utilized to evaluate the case. Employing GIS can dramatically increase the efficiency and effectiveness of these efforts. For example, the location of residential property damage plaintiffs can be mapped to determine the location and potential magnitude of the alleged affected area, allowing the expert to quickly prioritize and make the most of data-gathering. As soil sampling is performed, or sales information is gathered, this data can be incorporated into GIS to reveal relationships or patterns that steer the discovery and direct the future analyses to be performed.

Similarly, GIS is the most effective way to identify the relevant properties within a plume, affected area or class boundary. Once an area of interest is determined, the software can quickly display the locations of thousands of residential property owners, along with overlays of property transactions or other strategic data. GIS enables the user to efficiently model various potential class boundaries and the effectiveness of different settlement strategies.

In addition, to understand changes in a geographic region over time, demographic figures such as median household income, land use or population size may be mapped at different dates, quickly illuminating trends or areas of unexpected results. GIS can analyze a wide variety of information – population trends, demographics, housing statistics, traffic counts and business competitor data – to obtain a comprehensive view of those changes.

Finally, incorporating graphs, photographs and maps into a thorough analysis of a real estate market or geographic region allows the expert to maximize the client's understanding of the forces at work in that market and the possible impact on the ongoing litigation.

In one case, a client was sued by property owners, alleging loss of use and enjoyment due to odor emitted from a wastewater treatment facility. Using GIS, experts were able to identify the parcels within quarter-mile increments of the facility and modeled settlement alternatives based on geographic distance and parcel eligibility. With a combination of effective maps and flexible models, the GIS findings enabled the client to reach a favorable, cost-effective settlement.

Telling a Story
One fundamental use of GIS is to create powerful visual displays for expert reports, settlement negotiations or trial. When complex data is visually displayed, it tells a commanding story and makes dry, difficult to understand statistics much more meaningful. It can also be a significant advantage in an adversarial environment when keeping the attention of the judge, jury or mediator is crucial.

Each aspect of the map is fully customizable and tailored to the client's specific needs. A single map can display simple concepts, such as the location of a new plaintiff relative to an existing settlement boundary, as well as intricate concepts like wind direction, alternative source emitters, traffic volume, rail traffic, population density and the location of potential class representative properties. In addition, animated maps are extremely useful in deposition or live testimony to convey trends in property data, migration of contaminants or other critical variables. Multimedia maps, incorporating aerial photography, pictures and animation can make an expert's testimony and presentation even more compelling.

In a recent residential class action lawsuit alleging property value diminution against a major oil and gas company, due to release of waste oil into a local waterway, thousands of transactions were analyzed, utilizing appraisal methodology and statistical models. GIS was able to facilitate the analysis and presentation of outcomes, first to the client and later during expert testimony, resulting in a favorable defense verdict for the client.

Enlisting Online Communication
Besides static maps, dynamic web-based maps can be created and delivered through a secure, fully customized website. After logging in, the user has real-time access to strategic maps and reports generated by a few simple mouse clicks. GIS allows critical team members to access and share all relevant tools, analysis and visual displays, and users can print the maps they create, save them as an image for insertion into reports or download information to an Excel file for future analysis.

When a major oil company needed to track individual property damage claims brought by 350 individuals living on the site of a former petroleum storage facility, and simultaneously needed to track the status and results of environmental testing pursuant to ongoing state and federal regulatory oversight at its site, web-based GIS enabled legal counsel, real estate experts, environmental consultants and engineers to successfully share data and analyses. As a result, the residential property value claims were dismissed and the client continued to utilize the site as regulatory actions continued post-litigation.

As a final point, GIS has broad applications beyond litigation consulting that can benefit counsel's current and future clients, and the table below highlights select ways this technology can be deployed by almost any organization. A basic understanding of GIS will help every practitioner deliver better, more effective services.

For:GIS Can Provide:
Underperforming or Troubled Companies
  • Location of supply chain and major supply routes, including infrastructure dependencies
  • Thematic maps depicting profitability or productivity across regions or business units
  • Insight into competitors, including market share and strategic direction
  • Customer demographics, including location and profile of existing customers vs. target customers

Public Sector Organizations

  • Insight into population characteristics including historic trends and predicted values
  • Understanding of the utilization of existing facilities (e.g., schools, hospitals, public transportation) and areas of the community that are under- or over-served
  • Evaluation of key variables in strategic decisions
M&A Transactions
  • Assistance with site selection by evaluating geographic criteria such as proximity to transportation routes, required infrastructure, key suppliers or competitors and target customer base
  • Insight into impact of potential acquisition candidates by evaluating:
    • Location of existing facilities vs. target's facilities
    • Overlap in existing customer base and growth opportunities vs. target's supply route
    • Existing vs. target's key competition
Hospitals and Healthcare Entities
  • A deeper understanding of the diverse operations of a decentralized organization by preparing a straightforward map of locations and operations
  • Further insight by mapping: facility type, patient load, utilization and profitability
  • Identification of growth opportunities by mapping the demographics of existing markets or target markets

Summing it Up
Deployed as an analytical tool, static maps, or a web-based interactive tool, GIS can provide significant benefits:

  • Illustrate geographic relationships in a way unlike any spreadsheet or formula;
  • Create static maps that transform complex information into simple visuals that effectively highlight themes integral to a client's position; this is not as effective if text-only reports, graphs or spreadsheets are used; and
  • Provide a secure web-based channel for users to perform their own analyses in an efficient, cost-effective manner. The technology is only limited by the integrated data and the development team's imagination.

In short, GIS is a powerful tool, offering an alternate method of expressing complex and voluminous data in an understandable format and a strategic advantage over those who do not use this technology.