The GIS and Wireless Industries Meet

Mobile location services are at the intersection of the geographic information systems (GIS) industry and the wireless networking industry. Spatial analysis technologies developed in GIS have been repurposed for the speed and scalability required for mobile location services. Mobile operators' wireless data networks are used for application deployment, and positioning technologies leverage wireless and satellite technologies to perform complex measurements to pinpoint the location of a mobile user?a critical piece of information in many mobile location-based applications.

This is a new area for both GIS vendors and telecommunications companies. Traditionally GIS has been designed for powerful computers that perform spatial searches locally and do not require millisecond response times to route generation. Telecommunication companies and mobile operators excel at providing voice services, but are new to providing data services, content, and applications.

Location-based information and analysis enable valuable decision-making tools in a variety of applications. GIS applications have long been used for rapid response by fire departments, resource management by governmental agencies, cell tower placement by mobile phone companies, product marketing by direct marketing businesses, and many similar niche applications. How are mobile location-based services different, or are they?

Advances in communications, GIS, and Internet technologies have presented an opportunity to incorporate location information into valuable, easy-to-use solutions for the average person. When GIS was introduced to the Web in mapping and driving directions services like MapQuest, they were very popular. However, Web services are unable to leverage a key element that distinguishes mobile location services: the ability to personalize in real time by knowing where a user physically is.

So what exactly are mobile location services? In the popular context, mobile location services have come to mean solutions that leverage positional and spatial analysis tools (location information) to deliver consumer applications on a mobile device. Application opportunities can be grouped into the following categories:

  • Navigation and real-time traffic

  • Emergency assistance

  • Concierge and travel services

  • Location-based marketing and advertising

  • Location-based billing

Solutions in these categories will be provided to millions of users by large players in the telecommunication, automotive, and media industries. In many cases, the solution will contain several or all of these applications. This does not mean there are not other niche opportunities. Specialized location-based applications have been developed and are in use by companies such as FedEx, UPS, and Lojack. This corporate market includes the following services:

  • Dispatch and delivery route optimization

  • Fleet, asset, and individual tracking

  • Security and theft control

There is always room for improvement, but these markets are well served by existing solutions. These corporate applications do not have the scalability and open-standards requirements that products built for the consumer space need, requirements that traditional GIS products were not designed to meet.

The term mobile location services has developed in parallel with telematics, a term that dates to 1980, to mean the combining of computers and telecommunications. Telematics is actually the English version of the French term telematique, which was coined by Simon Nora and Alain Minc in the book L'informatisation de la Societe (La Documentation Francaise, 1978). Telematics is often used interchangeably with mobile location-based services, although more recently telematics is increasingly used to mean automotive telematics, or mobile location services for in-vehicle use. For clarity, this book uses mobile location services as defined earlier and telematics to mean automotive telematics.

To deploy high-quality location-based services means not only to correctly implement this intersection of GIS and wireless technologies, but to understand from Internet and media companies how to build robust and scalable services that people actually want to use, or better yet, feel they can't be without.

The market for mobile location services is being driven by two primary forces: auto manufacturers and mobile operators who understand the value of location-based applications and are investing heavily in pushing the products to market, and government regulation.