You’re not in Kansas anymore. Or maybe you are, but on a different highway. Or maybe you’re just in L.A. for the day or Battle Creek for the week. You consider yourself a road warrior, but on this business trip you feel lost, confused, alone.
While getting to where you’re going may not be as easy as clicking your heels three times, finding your destination in a strange place is getting a whole lot easier (and more affordable). Thanks to improvements in mobile mapping it is now more realistic than ever to implement solutions that leverage location-based services (LBS). These solutions accurately show who’s doing what, where and when—and that translates to delivering faster, more efficient customer service.
Behind the Technology
For all the good that Uncle Sam does, there’s always that eternal question: “What have you done for me lately?” Well, you can thank the government for actually hastening the implementation of location-based technology.
“All of these solutions, the impetus for growing all of these things, was born because of the FCC mandate for E911,” says Keith Waryas, research manager for wireless business network services at IT research firm IDC. Short for Enhanced 911, E911 has evolved from a major public safety issue: the inability to locate callers who dial 911 from mobile phones. Phase II of the E911 implementation (which is slated to be largely complete by the end of 2005) requires wireless carriers to pinpoint a caller to within about 300 meters.
To comply with E911 the wireless carriers have chosen either AGPS (assisted GPS) technology, which combines satellite GPS data with terrestrial network tower coordinates, or TDOA (time difference of arrival). TDOA relies exclusively on triangulating position based on cellular tower locations. The CDMA camp and iDEN-based Nextel have opted for AGPS, while the GSM side of wireless has adopted TDOA, says Jon Spinney, industry manager for location based services at GIS provider ESRI. However, Spinney adds that Nextel is the only major carrier that allows developers to utilize phones’ location-based capabilities.
Mapping solutions may also employ pure GPS signals that are considerably more accurate than AGPS or TDOA, even without being further refined by WAAS (wide area augmentation system) technology. However, GPS tends to be more expensive than the carriers’ location-based systems, requires line-of-sight access (so using it inside is out) and, says Waryas about its ability to locate an employee within a room versus within a city block: “It’s a little bit like swatting flies with an elephant gun.”
Putting Mapping to Work
Mapping is an integral part of the mobile enterprise and is often implicitly involved even without true location-based services. This may mean that assignments are made by county or Zip code and it is up to a technician or salesperson to find the location, be it by using his well-worn set of maps or by calling back and forth to the office. “If enterprises don’t have a mapping system, then basically they’re going to have to do a lot of communication via voice,” says Spinney.
Mapping plays a crucial role in getting employees to the right place and, with more involved solutions, knowing where employees are. As such, it makes for better systemic predictions and analysis, more efficient assignments based on the location of a job relative to an employee (and potentially a traffic jam) and also enables the rather sticky issue of tracking how employees spend their time.
In order to use location-based services one must first establish one’s position using a device (be it a GPS receiver or phone using AGPS or TDOA) and then pass this information to GIS software (e.g., street maps) stored locally or on a remote server in order to extract value and context from simple coordinates.
Finding the Right Solution
Mobile mapping tools span a relatively wide gulf of price and complexity.
Simple Solutions: On one hand there are now a number of mapping applications for phones running Java that often cost less than $10; Java phones start at about $150. This includes Rand McNally & Company’s $5 Mobile Travel Tools that allows a user to locate addresses, zoom in and out on detailed maps and get step-by-step directions.
While such solutions require only having a compliant phone, downloading the application and subscribing to a data plan, there is a simpler option. Mobile employees who can access the Internet via a mobile computing device can point their microbrowsers to consumer sites like MapQuest.com or Yahoo! Maps and get directions. The user must, however, provide accurate starting and ending points.
Disconnected Mapping: Services like MapQuest forgo the accuracy of location-based services, but still require a wireless connection in the field.
By purchasing complete atlases on CD-ROM (products such as DeLorme’s $49.95 Street Atlas USA 2004), users without a wireless connection can view maps and create directions while on the go—provided they are using laptops with a CD drive. Waryas notes, however, that for mobile employees a laptop is often not a good option because of the cost compared to smaller devices. The bulkiness of notebooks and the extra time it takes to boot up and establish a connection are downsides, as well.
Assuming you know all of your stops before you leave the office, DeLorme also offers the ability to export maps from a desktop to a handheld using its $39.95 Street Atlas USA 2004 Handheld software. Similar capability is offered by AvantGo from MapQuest.
As a compromise between these two disconnected options, one can use a handheld and save detailed maps of a region—say Chicago or the Bay Area—locally or on a removable memory card and map point-to-point directions while disconnected. Such solutions typically can interface with an optional GPS module to provide real-time location. For Palm, city-to-city directions are available on a 16MB card from Handmark and Rand McNally. For Pocket PC, ALK Technologies’ CoPilot software provides directions by address even when not using GPS; similarly, one can use Microsoft’s Pocket Streets along with maps from MapPoint, Streets & Trips or AutoRoute 2003.
The advent of next-generation wireless networks that afford greater data transfer rates means that detailed maps can be sent from a server rather than stored locally; on the other hand, a decrease in the price of memory on mobile devices means it is becoming practical to store more maps locally rather than download them.
Portable Location Devices: Handhelds that can fix the user’s location and provide mapping based upon this data using GPS receivers and mapping software are a step up in both complexity and price. In fact, most GPS receivers and GPS mapping software are interchangeable because of standard NMEA protocols says Patti Cassalia, senior product marketing manager for Bluetooth at Socket Communications. These handhelds tend to fall into two categories.
First are PDAs with permanent or removable GPS attachments. Garmin’s recently released $589 iQue 3600 blends a fixed GPS unit with a full-function Palm device. Pharos’ $250 removable Pocket GPS Portable Navigator attaches to the CompactFlash slot in most Pocket PC handhelds. To connect to a Pocket PC device without cables there are a number of Bluetooth offerings such as Socket Communications’ $529 GPS Nav Kit.
The second category includes purpose-built GPS devices that are typically associated with those packing a tent. While these outdoorsy devices provide accurate positioning for hiking or boating, it should come as no surprise that they are not made for city working.
Fixed Location Devices: For employees who do a lot of driving there are offerings like Garmin’s $1,166 StreetPilot 2610, a stand-alone, in-vehicle unit that provides maps and directions. Many of these units are meant for individual consumers and thus do not
interact with centralized dispatch or tracking centers.
Both portable and fixed devices typically include voice prompts and graphical real-time displays—even on phones. The software to which one’s location is coupled will also often include “points of interest” that might be hotels, restaurants or gas stations.
LBS Solutions: At the top of the list are integrated solutions that combine location with in-office software linked to assignment, notification, dispatching and tracking. Often higher-end systems that incorporate GPS units function in a second role as asset tracking solutions when it becomes important to know not necessarily where the delivery person is but where the vehicle is.
For big deployments—particularly in logistics—GPS reigns supreme because of its accuracy and because the carriers have been slow to roll out network-based LBS services that can be built into solutions. However there are many companies that take an employee’s or asset’s position and weave it into a system that gives it meaning within a larger mobile solution: where the employee is now, where he’s been, where he’s going, where he is relative to other employees, customers or assets.
As the carriers roll out LBS offerings, more and more enterprises with mobile workers are apt to adopt them. These mobile mapping options may not be as easy to implement or as stylish as ruby red slippers, but they do go a long way to getting you back to Kansas…or wherever it is you need to go.•
Lee Gimpel is a freelance writer who covers technology.