Information tells you that a tomato is a fruit. Layer some context onto that data, and you know you should never use that tomato in a fruit salad. Unless, of course, you’re working in one of Heston Blumenthal’s restaurants.
Such is the relationship between data, context and real-time information. Location-based services is the generic term for exploitation of that relationship but, as we shall see, this is a broad definition that includes vendors coming at the problem from very different perspectives.
In Camp A are the developers who are convinced that no activity should ever go unpunished by a constant bombardment of marketing messages and the like.
To these vendors, geo-fencing could provide the important level of context that mobile applications have lacked so far. The extra dimension it adds is your grid reference, the background location and the updates for that space.
Until recently, this was not possible, so location apps were constrained by the limits of a one-dimensional operating system capable of single tasks at any one time. Geo-fencing’s ability to bring all the elements together (such as location and updates to local services) could create a new class of services.
Of course, while the geo-fence location is relatively static, a geo-fence time window is the opposite. Information about events at locations will appear and disappear at great speed. Cross this with rapidly changing real-time information and you have what some refer to as an exciting dynamic for the enterprise.
One of the ways to combine these is a new genre called ‘place-based geo-fences’. These use a stream of continuously pushed locations to identify when a user enters or exits a place or static zone.
A ‘place’ may be a local business or even the county of Yorkshire. Place and zone data sources are infinite – from schools and other points of entry to boundaries such as a county, city or postcode.
With places loaded into a geo-fencing service, you can build smartphone apps to trigger when a user enters or leaves the static area that you care about. So, your app could send an email, text or multimedia alert to the user or trigger an action such as updating a database.
While the geo-fence location is relatively static, the geo-fence time window is extremely dynamic. This gets very interesting when you incorporate rapidly moving real-time data, such as Twitter feeds.
Another application might be to dispose of expiring assets, like Olympic tickets for instance.
These are great applications in theory. Android, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile are all ready to run these services. But managing the background process is enormously complex, especially the location and geospatial calculations.
‘We’re seeing an explosion of media channels greater than we’ve ever seen in history,’ says Frank Moyer, the CEO of geospatial analysis firm GeoIQ.
One UK company argues that, if you’re going to work so hard to develop geospatial technologies that work on a hyper-local level, perhaps it would be a good idea to use them for something other than marketing. And with mobile and wireless suffering from marketing fatigue, perhaps the technology might be better served for use in the logistics or security industries?
Cambridge-based Omnisense is a new start-up that has created a new design for positioning. The trouble with the existing models of radio location was that there were too many restrictions, argues its CEO and founder Andy Thurman.
‘Most positioning systems need an infrastructure, which is limited by the rigidity of the system. Tracking movements of packages or people through RFID (radio frequency identification) is constrained by the number of gates you can create for RFID readers, which in turn are reliant on a cabling infrastructure.
‘GPS (global positioning systems) are limited by good access to the sky above. Even when it’s good, the level of detail is not enough’, says Thurman.
Omnisense has developed a system that can bring the same geo-positioning and border security benefits as GPS but with a more fluid infrastructure that is more versatile and less costly. Its network is created around a flat architecture in which devices create a mesh by communicating with each other. By assessing each other’s relative signal strength, the devices can then work out their relative positions and map out their own network.
Any device that comes into, or out of, the boundaries of this network can be detected. The beauty of this architecture is that it’s easy to set up, cheaper to implement, versatile and adaptable. More crucially, it penetrates buildings and offers a much more detailed picture of urban conurbations.
This is why it is attractive to the fire service, for example. Omnisense has spoken to buyers from the military and regional fire brigades about using the system to help keep track of its members. GPS doesn’t help a fire brigade leader to track the whereabouts of every member of the crew, unless they are miles away. But in an emergency situation, they will need detailed information about where each member is. Are they inside the burning building or did they get out? Omnisense can provide this pinpoint tracking information.
Similarly, army squadrons could benefit from the accountability that comes from giving each solider an RFID tag. In Afghanistan, for example, it would have alerted the 4th battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland the minute one of their members was snatched by the Taliban – and the captors would not have been able to prevent it.
‘One of the attractions of our system is that it cannot be jammed, unlike GPS,’ says Thurman.
On a more peaceful footing, dairy farmers have found a use for this new type of geo-positioning and border security. The productivity of a dairy herd hinges on where the cows are in their oestrogen cycle and how swiftly the dairy farmer acts on this information. If a cow is on heat, there is only a short window for it to be inseminated. If the farmer doesn’t act within 48 hours, the next opportunity is not for another 20 days.
The problem is, with the herd wandering remotely, the farmer has no way of even keeping tabs on a cow. But with the Omnisense network, not only can they track them, but the level of detail about the cow’s movements also gives them an idea as to their readiness for breeding.
‘Cows become more active when they are on heat,’ says Thurman. His positioning system reports back to a computer, which can instantly flag up alerts about any cows that appear to be ready for breeding.
As a result, farmers make maximum use of their herd, getting them to breed more efficiently and keeping them as productive milkers for longer. One way or the other, geo-fencing is being used to exploit the herd. The difference is that the system actually works today.