Location-based services go indoors

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Location-based systems have revolutionized the way we live our lives. While most of these have focused on the outdoors, advances in technology mean that we will soon see the implementation of more indoor applications.

Democratization of location

What do supply chain managers, sports coaches and taxi companies all have in common? The answer is that they are increasingly using digital location data to provide insight, improve their operations or extend their businesses into new areas.

Knowledge of location is of fundamental importance in many human endeavors. Early man needed to have a good idea of location to support basic activities such as hunting, gathering and sheltering. Later, seafarers needed more accurate location data to be able to navigate the oceans, discover new territories and open up world trade.

In the purely analog world of the past, location and position data either required specialist tools and expertise or were too difficult and costly to acquire. Often the acquisition of accurate location data was the preserve of the few.

Since Global Positioning System (GPS) services were made available for commercial use over 20 years ago, there has been a steady transformation of analog location systems towards digital-based systems. This democratization of digital location has enabled designers to engineer a proliferation of services utilizing location data.

The context of where

Location data can be seen as one of the "elements of circumstances." It answers the question of "where." However, single data points are likely to have only a limited value, since without grounding data within a larger contextual framework, users will struggle to take advantage of much of the value the data brings. Consequently the value of location data will increase exponentially when integrated and assessed with other data.

A good example of this concept is Waze, a turn-by-turn mobile GPS navigation application that is built on four layers of digital data: GPS location information, digital mapping, social data from other users and sensor data from smart phones. The combination of these data sources, together with advanced algorithms, enables the service to constantly recalculate the best route, even while the vehicle is en-route. This greatly increases the usefulness to the user over traditional GPS navigation using just two data sources – digital maps and GPS location information.

Improved processes and new business models

Location intelligence is fast becoming a critical data asset and process enabler across a variety of industry settings. In supply chain management, with its focus on just-in-time methods, location data is critical to optimizing operations and safeguarding delivery to increase efficiency and enhance customer service. Asset intensive industries are including location data alongside condition data to drive predictive maintenance applications and set up trouble tickets or plan maintenance activities.

Similarly, sports such as football have adopted location technology to generate heatmaps that show a player's progress during a match. According to Portuguese club Benfica, such data can be used to complement other performance data and set targets for improvement. When it comes to selling players, this data can be used in the sales process to support pricing negotiations, etc.

Location is a foundation data point in new, disruptive businesses such as Uber, with algorithms utilizing customer and driver location data together with multiple data points to match supply and demand and establish the terms and price of a ride.

Indoor location in focus

Having spent the last several years focused on outdoor location, more attention is now being given to applications using indoor location and positioning. Indoor location intelligence is attractive to many organizations in areas like asset and people tracking, geo-fencing, way finding, health and safety, plant and warehouse operations.

Achieving indoor location coverage is not a straightforward extrapolation of existing systems used for outdoor. Existing available outdoor systems, such as GPS, can only be received reliably outdoors, so other methods needs to be used.

A number of technologies are available that can address the needs of indoor localization. These generally consist of:

  • Hardware such as RFID tags, beacons and other sensors
  • Connectivity such as Bluetooth Low Energy, LoRa, Ultra-wideband (UWB) and Wi-Fi
  • Software location engines to process the raw data and compute location. Usually this will include an API to provide outputs to higher-level applications

Each technology has its own operational characteristics and different cost profiles. Depending on the technologies used, location accuracy down to less than one meter is possible. The critical point here is to match the chosen technology to the environmental and operational needs of the business.

At the Orange Gardens campus in Paris, employees utilize personal productivity tools that include indoor location-tracking technologies. A mobile app provides access to a range of services such as meeting room bookings, corporate information and trouble ticketing. It also includes a social engagement capability that links employee location, communications capabilities such as IM and way finding to enable employees to quickly organize meet-ups, book rooms and navigate to their desired locations.

Bringing it all together

While outdoor and indoor location display significant technical differences and adoption rates, leading organizations are already deploying solutions that integrate outdoor location data with indoor location data to further drive a model of seamless end-to-end process.

For example, automotive companies such as Audi are using location data to optimize just-in-time production processes. Outdoor geo-fencing technology initially informs the production plant of an impending delivery when trucks are 50km away. This triggers the start of internal logistics such as checking that the parts are as ordered.

When the truck is less than 5km away, the internal processes switch the parts from "in transit" to "in factory," and they are included in the internal logistics process. The individual parts are then distributed to the production line by location-assisted, driver-less transport vehicles.

Making a success of your indoor location project

Factories, warehouses, transport hubs, arenas, shopping malls, hotels, hospitals and education facilities can all benefit from the development of location-aware digital systems based on indoor location and positioning. The possibilities offered by indoor location-based services are abundant. However, data is only useful if it informs decisions. The value flows from what a business does with data.

For your indoor location project you should take a pragmatic approach.

What are the use cases?

A good starting point would be to ask a simple question. "How can my business be improved by the addition of location data?"

A list of potential cases that deserve consideration may already exist. It's worth talking with key stakeholders to identify their issues, and ask how location can help. Buy-in from stakeholders will be critical to identifying return on investment and securing funding.

People, process, technology – Existing processes will depend on a combination of people and technology. How will these relationships be altered with the introduction of location data? A system must take into consideration the user journey and how it will help them overcome their pain points.

Engage the experts – Capturing and taking advantage of digital location data are likely to be new activities in most organizations. Therefore, it is important to engage the appropriate expertise to ensure successful project outcomes.

Test first, then scale: It's best to run a proof of concept to ensure that you have the right technology for the application and that the system operates as planned. While doing this, it's important to keep an eye on the overall objectives of the project and the solution's ability to scale to meet the requirements of both today and the future.

Gordon Loader
Gordon Loader

Gordon Loader is a specialist in Digital Transformation, with a consultative approach to solving customer business challenges and delivering positive business outcomes.

Gordon has been most recently focused on the Internet of Things and Big Data and Analytics as foundation elements for the data-driven business, enabling organizations to build competitive advantage through informed decision making and fast execution.

He devotes his spare time to family and friends and enjoys keeping abreast of developments in the worlds of business, technology and finance.