Location, Location, (Geospatial) Location
by Nancy Davis Kho
The declassification of the government’s Global Positioning System (GPS) in 1983 cracked open the door to commercial development of geolocation data. But it’s only been in the past few years, with the rise of the social web and mobile technology, that the business possibilities around geospatial data have blown that door off its hinges.
Simply put, geolocation data locates a person, a computer, or a point of interest on a map. It is generally determined through GPS, IP address, Wi-Fi network location, cell phone location, or self-reporting via location-based services (LBS).
The rollout of Google Earth in June 2005 provided the first mass market glimpse of what incorporating geospatial data with other data could achieve. Andre Doumitt, CEO of Geosemble Technologies, which provides automatic techniques for extracting and fusing geospatial data sets, says, “Google Earth was the electromagnetic pulse that shook everyone up. People were saying ‘Holy cow! We can use maps like that?’”
We can, and we will do more of it. Gartner anticipates that by the end of 2011, more than 75% of devices shipped in mature markets will include a GPS that will enable information providers to pinpoint the user’s location at any given time. According to Gartner’s March 2010 forecast titled “Mobile Devices, Worldwide, 2003–2014, 1Q10 Update,” mobile phone sales will return to growth in 2010, after remaining flat in 2009. Much of that growth will come from smartphones, with year-over-year growth projected to reach 43%. Those projections, taken together, point out just how critical it will be for information providers to tie digital and real-world data together for their customers on-the-go.
The emergence of consumer-oriented LBSs such as Gowalla, foursquare, and Brightkite garnered plenty of attention, thanks to meteoric growth rates. For example, foursquare clocked its 40-millionth “check-in” in May 2010, an instance in which a user voluntarily reported his or her location as a means of staying in touch with the social network and in return for points, badges, or special offers. This is impressive for a company that just recently celebrated its first anniversary.
But there are plenty of reasons why geolocation data will bring value to vendors and consumers of business information. Improved personalization, decision support, and license administration are only a few areas in which geolocation data can play a larger role.
Helping Personalize and Segment Markets
The initial response to the early days of LBSs, with such companies as Loopt, could have been characterized with a head-scratching, “Why?” Why would someone want to report on his or her movements from dry cleaner to bar to gas station, and what possible business applications could ensue?
Retailers figured it out first: implement highly localized ads through geotargeting. For instance, a taquería can award customers a free taco after four visits, or a boutique can offer a discount to users who check in at the front door. These types of offers not only reach a highly targeted market but they also build loyalty and repeat business, both of which are also desirable outcomes in the B2B space. An obvious application of geotargeting would be tailoring special offers available on a website based on the visitor’s geographic location.
The Financial Times (FT) is rumored to be working with foursquare on a program to reward users who check in at certain locations, all near university campuses affiliated with top business schools. By checking in at specific locations frequently enough, users will receive a code that lets them unlock premium FT.com subscriptions. The FT initiative builds brand awareness among a targeted set of users likely to look to the media company for their professional information needs once they have graduated.
A corporate or academic library could experiment with LBS incentives to encourage in-person visits during which additional library resources could be highlighted. For sales professionals, using an LBS can improve the efficiency of business trips and sales calls. Doumitt says, “It can essentially let you view an entire city as a trade show. You can filter points of interest on the map by industry or activity, then go up and down the ‘aisles’ of a city making your sales calls.” Geosemble’s GeoXray product is a tool that brings content to the imagery being viewed, including information on individual feature points such as addresses, business and building names, and dynamic content such as news, blogs, and tweets.
It’s easy to imagine vendors of vertical market data solutions incorporating maps and points of interest into LBS applications for smartphones, filtering the information for the user and augmenting it with proprietary market data such as a list of executives or company financials.
Location as Decision Support
Dow Jones Insight is a media analysis service that captures events, messages, concepts, and news from across the web to help its users. As a result, many of the users, who are corporate PR and marketing professionals, can stay informed about pertinent conversations on the web. Martin Murtland, vice president and managing director of Dow Jones, says, “It’s important for our customers to understand not just what is being said, but where the buzz is being generated in order to set related strategy.”
Dow Jones uses its own geometadata to help customers understand the physical location where the comments are originating. Murtland says one typical user was a client who was responsible for marketing a country as a holiday destination. “The customer was able to analyze how perceptions about their country differed by country and regions in the world based on discussions in social media, and then adjust their marketing messaging and campaigns appropriately in those countries,” he says.
Incorporating location data into existing information products is a means of surfacing more opportunities and making better decisions about them when they arise. Doumitt says, “Organizations have huge databases that include lists of ‘Points of Interest’ like franchise locations and company addresses. Those lists aren’t really being leveraged yet.”
Andy Reid is the president of Hanley Wood, a B2B media company focused solely on the construction industry. While its flagship Builder Magazine serves a national audience, the company’s goal is to generate content localized to the street level. Reid says, “Our Housing Intelligence database helps builders make better decisions because the geospatial data provides more context.” As a recent example, Reid cites builders working on the final units of a multiyear new housing development project, only to see, via geospatial intelligence, that slightly older units in the same development are going into foreclosure just down the street. “By seeing where the units are in proximity to each other,” Reid says, “builders have much better information from which to figure out how to respond.”
LNG TraderNet from McGraw-Hill subsidiary Platts is a web-based solution for assessing the potential impact of LNG (liquid and natural gas) deliveries on gas and power prices. When it was launched in March 2009 to supplement the digital publication LNG Daily, the use of geolocation data was key. “LNG traders need to know if ships are diverting to different ports than anticipated because it can
affect trading decisions related to that location,” says Robert Barton, global business director of the Power Group at Platts. LNG TraderNet provides nearly real-time positioning of ships by marrying up a data feed of Automated Identification System (AIS) transponders with Google Maps. The feed comes courtesy of PortVision, a service of AIRSIS, Inc., a maritime technology company.
By seeing on a map that a ship is heading toward a port different than the one intended, LNG TraderNet clients can achieve what Doumitt says is the ultimate benefit of geolocation data: “Be smart earlier than the next guy.”
Making Licensing and Compliance Smarter
Media and information companies are also seeing the possibilities that geolocation can play in licensing and regulatory compliance. Marie Alexander, president and CEO of Quova, which delivers detailed demographic and network characteristic data about IP addresses, gives the example of Major League Baseball as a leader in using IP geolocation to ensure compliance and protect their broadcast agreements. “They negotiate the broadcast rights with third parties, so if a person from a certain geographic area tries to log in to their site and see a game streamed live, they’ll be blocked,” she says.
Similarly, if a vendor’s content redistribution deals call for selective provision of data sources by geographic boundaries due to local laws, geolocation tools can make it easier to ensure that only users within relevant territories will have access. It also gives vendors who want to monitor compliance with single site versus enterprise licenses a new way to gather detailed information on where a user is physically logging in from.
Compliance with federal regulations such as the USA PATRIOT Act can also be facilitated; for instance, a manufacturer might be able to tell from IP address information that an order is being placed from Cuba, which is subject to export restrictions. That information can then trigger special handling of the transaction.
Coming Soon: Everything
Customers and vendors recognize that the possibilities of geolocation are still in the early stages. “From a technical perspective, the capabilities available to us are substantially beyond what they were even a few years ago,” says Reid. Doumitt agrees that the pace of development will only increase, saying, “It’s the Wild West out there.” Privacy advocates agree, worrying that the ability to pinpoint anyone, anywhere carries terrifying implications for personal rights. Expect heated conversations about the appropriate use of geolocation data in the business environment to continue.
In the meantime, a rush of new market entrants has already driven prices down and innovation up. “The AIS data we use is only picked up by shore stations,” says Barton, “so if a ship is too far out at sea, we may not know exactly where it is. There is a deep sea information source available, but it’s always been very expensive. I expect there to [be] more choices for that over time.”
Improved accuracy and increased granularity will continue to be a priority. Alexander says the interest in ever-finer levels of market segmentation is driving development in the geolocation data world. “People want to get to a higher level of specificity than where most services are now,” he says. “That’s why we’re working on a comprehensive Zip +4 database to come out later this year.” The database will allow companies with lots of demographic data to segment on an even more granular level.
The combination of aerial and 3D graphics with geospatial data will continue to make it easier to use visualization techniques. Dante Pennacchia, chief marketing officer of Pictometry, a provider of geo-referenced aerial, oblique image libraries and related software, says his company is working on a new project for use in mining, facilities management, and security situations. “It’s the ability to monitor the position of people inside buildings and [use] our technology to visualize it,” he says. “The technology to get the signals inside buildings now exists.”
But for now, evangelism is still the main priority for geospatial data believers. Alexander says, “There are still so many people who don’t recognize what’s possible. They don’t recognize how simple it is to get started.”