MapInfo (NASDAQ:MAPS) reported its first-quarter earnings before the bell last Thursday. The announcement emphasized huge percentage increases in net income and operating income. But, stop and think: Is it really meaningful to make a comparison to something that was almost zero in the previous quarter?

You're going to have to get up pretty early to slip something like that past this Fool. And past the market, too -- though the stock price was up early in the day, it closed a penny below the pre-announcement price.

MapInfo, though, might have enough going for it to put itself on your investment map. The company develops location-based business intelligence systems -- think fancy maps on steroids. By putting various types of data onto digital maps, MapInfo helps clients make business decisions. Here are some examples:

  • Logistics: MapInfo helps the Federal Emergency Management Agency work efficiently with its local agencies to coordinate supplies and people during emergency relief efforts.
  • Economic Development: Say Forest CityEnterprises (NYSE:FCEA) wants to create a new shopping development. It uses location-based information like population densities and spending habits to determine the sites with the best potential for high returns on invested capital. And MapInfo supplies additional products that help bring the data to life during the analysis process.
  • Marketing: When CKE Restaurants (NYSE:CKE) wants to open a new Hardees, it uses MapInfo products to find the locations that maximize sales at the new store while minimizing cannibalization of existing restaurants. Retailers like Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) and Home Depot (NYSE:HD) use MapInfo software with their point-of-sale data to tailor local advertising and marketing campaigns.

In today's digital world, who knew the map could become so cool and add so much value?

But value added is only one part of the equation. To be successful, a company has to capture a piece of that value. Right now, MapInfo has a return on invested capital of about 7%. The return is low because the company had to write off a poor equity investment. That problem is now behind it, and the company's revenues should continue to grow around 20% per year as it plows 17% of sales back into R&D to enhance and develop new products and services. And those high-gross-margin products will increase net income, cash flows, and returns going forward.

I sit in the value camp and look for bargains anywhere I can find them. MapInfo sports an enterprise value to free cash flow ratio of 18. With so much data being collected and used today (think RFID), I think there is a good chance that growth could accelerate. That could mean the difference between a reasonable price and a bargain price. As usual, do your homework and make your own decisions. I'll be reading MapInfo's 10-Ks all next week.

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Fool contributor David Meier does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned.