By the end of this year, officials at Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. hope to have up and running a cutting-edge computer system called Loadsite.
With its color monitor and mapping capabilities, Loadsite will be able to predict where Maryland residents are likely to live, how large their houses will be, how many shopping centers they will have nearby and the kind of transportation system they are likely to use. BG&E hopes the information will enhance its corporate planning capabilities by being able to predict areas where the company can expect a growing demand for gas and electric service.
But before Loadsite can go on line, it must first get a heavy infusion from one of the major sources of statistical information available anywhere -- the U.S. Census.
Using the census is a time-honored tradition in business; BG&E has used it for decades. But not all businesses realize what data is available or how to use it. Smaller companies in particular may need assistance.
For example, at BG&E, Brent Dorsey, supervisor for area planning, said Loadsite will allow analysts to eliminate judgment calls and guess work when it comes to predicting growth.
"Right now, we have a fairly decent handle on what growth is going to do two or three years into the horizon," he said. "But beyond that it's sheer speculation. This will allow more than one analyst to come down, look at a set of figures and come up with the same results."
In the grocery business Food Lion, the Salisbury, N.C.-based supermarket chain, will use the census data it recently requested from the Maryland Office of Planning to decide whether to add to the six stores already in the state, said Michael Mozingo, a spokesman for the chain.
"It helps to get ahead of growth a little bit," Mozingo said. "That way we can get into the real estate market before pressures force prices up. We have stores that people thought were on the edges of the wilderness, but are now in the middle of fairly substantial developments."
A Fairfax, Va.-based engineering firm, Dewberry and Davis, uses census data to assist its development clients in site selection, feasibility studies, transportation analysis, and infrastructure design, to name a few. Again, the emphasis is on tracking growth areas, said Cindy Taylor-Willis, a company spokeswoman.
For newspapers the emphasis in on circulation, advertising and editorial coverage. For instance, the Baltimore Sun uses the census to plan its circulation drives, identify opportunities for advertisers and plan its editorial coverage.
There are several sources for U.S. Census data, including the U.S. Census Bureau, the Maryland Office of Planning's State Data Center and the Small Business Development Center under the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development.
Other sources include state libraries and regional and local planning agencies.
This year, the U.S. Census Bureau is taking access to census data a step further by making it available on compact disk. Each CD-ROM, which stands for compact disk-read only memory, will hold up to 1,500 times more data than the standard flexible diskettes, also known as floppy disks.
A CD-ROM disk can sell for approximately $150, and all of Maryland's census data will fit on about six disks.
Floppy disks, which sell for approximately $25, will still be available, as well as computer tapes, microfiche and printed reports.
Michel Lettre, assistant director of the state Office of Planning, // said that because CD-ROM holds more information on one disk, it's likely to replace the other methods of recording data, especially for such groups as reference librarians and large corporations.
Another advance that should improve the use of the census by the business community is the TIGER System.
TIGER, or Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing, will allow census users to create maps that link census data to specific geographical areas.
Officials concede that at first large corporations will be the main users of the new technology. In time, however, smaller companies should come aboard.
"Big companies systematically use the census," said Lettre "What I think is possible now, because of the personal computer, that smaller companies are in a better position to use the data. For that reason, they should begin thinking about it."
One of the hurdles to be overcome by small businesses is the notion that using the census is too complicated, an infliction that most often strikes the small business entrepreneur.
Lettre said many companies probably use census data already but aren't aware of it. Consultant groups in particular will mix census data with their own research and repackage it to tailor a firm's needs.
But a consultancy is not always necessary and Lettre said his office often gets calls from dentists and veterinarians in search of the perfect start-up or expansion location.
In order to get the right information, Lettre advises callers to consider two things.