LB(x) - Next-Gen Location Applications for Businesses and Consumers

Craig Bachmann & Natasha Leger are partners in ITF Advisors, LLC, an independent consulting firm with a focus on next-generation strategy and on translating the increasingly complex new media business environment's impact on business models, markets and users.

Location! Location! Location! We hear this all the time when it comes to real estate and retail. Cartographers, geologists, industrialists, and GIS professionals all have known the importance of the information that is communicated through a map.

In our last column, we stated, "…as long as land and water, labor, and capital remain the factors of production and are fundamental to food, shelter, and safety, a map is a fundamental organizing principle." The "location advantage" for organizations and enterprises generally resides in a small GIS group within a government agency, utility, telephone company, or cable company that needs to monitor infrastructure. For the consumer, the location advantage lies in Internet-based applications such as MapQuest, Google Earth, and Yahoo! Maps, and in location-based services (LBS) or personal navigation devices such as Magellan, Garmin or TomTom.

Location-based services, which recognize that time and place are at the center of human activity, have captured the imagination and attention of consumers, businesses, and investors. LBS is the killer app we’ve been looking for with respect to Imaging/Remote Sensing (I/RS), and it is just the beginning of an extensive enterprise LB(x) market.

The LBS Buzz

These are exciting times for the GIS and geospatial industries, which have been at the heart of providing geospatial information over the last thirty years. Now that the world has seen a renaissance of geospatial thinking, with digital globes and interactive maps now available on every desktop and with a number of handheld devices, a plethora of activity is taking place involving millions of new users, thousands of new applications, new consumer electronic devices, mergers and acquisitions, and new business models. All of this geospatial buzz is not viewed by these new users as "GIS" or "Enterprise Spatial Assets" or "Imaging/Remote Sensing."

Instead, these new users may take the digitized mapping and imagery for granted and understand the value of "location"—how is my location important to points of interest; for example, "Where’s the closest Starbucks?" Or how is a location important to my broader understanding of related issues; for example, "What is the variable store performance across different regions and demographics?"

Location-based services are mobile services based on a user’s geographic location which answer three questions:

  1. Where am I?
  2. What’s around me?
  3. How do I get to where I need to be?

Or in the case of some emergency services, how do others get to me? These are questions of convenience and efficiency. LBS services revolve around the individual and the individual’s quest to find places, products and services quickly.

Nokia’s $8.1 billion acquisition of Navteq demonstrates the value that at least Nokia, as the world’s largest mobile handset manufacturer, attributes to location and the integration of location into everyday lifestyle. Location-based services are now, officially, according to market research firms such as Insight Research; Forrester, Frost and Sullivan; and IDC, beginning to look like a "killer app." Depending on how the market is defined and calculated, the LBS market is estimated at $40-500 billion over the next five years, as "find me, follow me" services become as indispensable as a credit card.

Although consumers have now come to expect the convenience of LBS, bringing such products and services to market is a complex undertaking that requires cross-industry collaboration. LBS is a "diagonal" market because it cuts across so many different industries, requiring integration with wireless carriers, software providers, consumer electronics providers, content providers, and global positioning data providers.

The LBS market requires integration of all of these pieces of the ecosystem to successfully bring products and services to market. The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), as an example, has been working on this integration from a standards perspective for years. Their Open Location Services standard (OpenLS) "…is one of the most widely implemented yet least known of the OGC specifications," said Carl Reed, CTO of the OGC. It has been implemented by such companies as Sprint, Vodafone, Verizon, MapInfo, and ESRI. "Pulling together this ecosystem, with over 344 members and 50-60 software vendors all working on their own product development cycles, is not easy. More integration will be required as LBS evolves, especially as the volume of content increases – content is going to come from sensed information, including RFID sensors, user-generated content, intelligent devices – all communication out to the web," said Sam Bacharach, Executive Director, Outreach and Community Adoption for the OGC.

Enter Stage Left—The LB(x) Market

Tapping into the LBS buzz, and frankly into the "Google Earth effect," a location-based orientation for almost anything is certain. We see this already happening with the use of location as a business intelligence, analytical, and communication tool rapidly gaining momentum (see "Monetizing the Spatial Mashup" in the Summer 2007 issue). The ability to visualize business operations, land use policies, global warming and green initiatives, and other complex data sets through a digital map interface is accelerating people’s understanding of the issues underlying such subjects. The interactive, intelligent map is the PowerPoint presentation, newspaper, and communication tool of the future.

Location-based "x" (LBx) is the recognition that all products and services are connected to location, whether they have to do with supply chain, transportation costs, distribution, proximity to the customer or suppliers, competition, or the performance of the product or service in various markets. As a result, the ability to track, monitor, and control facilities, assets, and information from a location perspective delivers real-time visibility into business processes, operations, and competitive considerations. LBx services and applications are the natural extensions of the consumer applications such as LBS and Internet mapping. Unlike LBS, which revolves around the individual’s location, LBx revolves around the enterprise and the location of people, places, facilities, and assets. A geospatial business paradigm is beginning to form.

Following are two examples of location-based "x" services that integrate imagery.

Location-based Digital Asset Management

The National Geographic Society, known to the world as a global educational media company with its magazines, books, maps, videos, and television channel, has entered the software business. The society needed a means of managing its volumes of digital media assets, including print magazine articles, research, videos, books, maps, photos and other products, and couldn’t find an off-the-shelf application to integrate into its systems. "Because the society relies on so many freelance writers, photographers, and video producers, the system had to manage a number of important business issues, including digital rights management," said David Wright, Director of Professional Sales for National Geographic Maps.

Like many other organizations, in addition to managing rapidly escalating volumes of digital data, National Geographic needed the ability to share and present georeferenced data to subject matter experts, partners, and the public easily, using common platforms. Therefore, National Geographic Maps embarked on launching the first geospatial digital asset management software solution, called MetaLens.

Figure 1 - MetaLens manages any digital content – over 100 mime types. This figure represents a photo of the Stonehenge Megalith in England, the metadata associated with the photo and the other digital assets that reference the Stonehenge Megalith.

MetaLens combines mapping capabilities with metadata and digital media to search geodata easily and to present it in multidimensional views. With MetaLens, once a digital asset is geotagged, it can be easily stored, catalogued, retrieved, managed, and shared. Digital assets include anything from text documents to video files, audio files, and photos. Any asset that is digitized can be georeferenced. A collection of georeferenced digital assets, as illustrated in Figure 1, provides new context, knowledge and value to otherwise independent pieces of information.

MetaLens can pull in satellite and aerial imagery from any source and platform–a feature that makes the software attractive to professional GIS users and new geospatial data users who have embraced consumer tools such as Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth. Figure 2 illustrates imagery from ESRI’s ArcWeb Services. "The ability to add information to imagery creates new value, because it is no longer a snapshot; it now has context," said Renee Walmsley, Professional Products Manager for National Geographic Maps. As location becomes the defacto presentation, analytical and communication tool, and the organizing principle of the future, managing geocoded digital assets is a critical first step in integrating location into operations.

Figure 2 - The MetaLens map-centric view can ingest imagery through ESRI ArcWeb Services. This figure is an aerial survey of the Liuwa Plains in Zambia.

"MetaLens solves a missing link in many LBx solutions today in that it provides a secure solution," said Walmsley. "While some may think MetaLens is a mashup because of its ability to ingest multiple georefenced data, it’s not. It is a pliable and secure solution, with an API that provides a geospatial-enabled collaboration platform."

A great deal of the chatter in the geospatial web world is about the term ‘pluggable architecture’. This is an appropriate term for MetaLens, "because the solution provides a service-oriented architecture that allows for extension and customization of the platform without having to ‘crack open the box’," said Walmsley. MetaLens appears to be an answer to the challenge that the GeoWeb presents to traditional enterprises and organizations seeking to integrate new geospatial tools with legacy enterprise GIS systems and to securely share data. (See Next-Gen Mapping, Fall 2007, "GeoWeb 2007: The State of Spatial Data Infrastructure.")

Location-based Operational Integration

Recognition of the location advantage is key to business adoption of LBx. GIS growth has been limited by expensive, complicated, and proprietary systems. With geospatial data exchange becoming easier, satellite and aerial imagery will become a critical business intelligence tool. Imaging can provide the "a-ha!" that may improve the bottom line, create a new top line, reduce churn, optimize assets, and identify the "special sauce" that will differentiate an organization in an increasingly competitive environment.

Sean Bristol, Director of Engineering for Comcast Seattle, discovered the monetary benefits of incorporating imagery into Comcast’s cable operations. "The use of imagery and spatial information in our systems occurs every day to solve problems," said Bristol. Comcast in Washington has been using imagery to determine serviceability for new residential and commercial business deployments, and anticipates using it in the future to model and determine propagation paths. Figure 3 illustrates that referencing the physical plant assets in relation to imagery can allow users to determine what might stand in the way of servicing a particular location without the expense of sending a survey crew out. More importantly, according to Bristol, the use of imagery and GIS has led to $12 million in new year-over-year revenue due to the identification of serviceable customers. Utilization of GIS intelligence and imagery has offered many areas of expense savings over the years; however this was the first crack at generating revenue. "It’s quite a difference for your ROI when you can point to revenue rather than expense savings," said Bristol.

Figure 3 - Screen shot from Comcast’s @MAppIMS system utilized for plant management. The picture depicts the physical Comcast plant in relation to the satellite imagery across both residential and commercial areas.

I/RS KillerApplication

Location is now viewed as the killer app in business intelligence, consumer applications, and advertising. From a business intelligence perspective, it’s easier to understand a map that identifies business performance than to scroll through Excel files and numerous charts and tables. The map view is processed almost instantaneously, while the Excel sheets require conversions into powerpoints, and additional processing and interpretation. Relative to consumer applications, location is increasingly important to the road warrior and soccer mom as mobility dominates lifestyle in the 21st Century.

Finally, as a captive audience becomes more elusive, advertisers are turning to location to follow and target consumers. A map becomes intelligent once it’s interactive. Imagery becomes more valuable to enterprises once it can be efficiently and effectively integrated into operational plans and decision-making. LBx is beginning to enter the business lexicon and may very well be the killer app that defines the commercial satellite industry over the next five years as it opens imagery to new markets and organizations, such as insurance, hospitality, consumer products, and transportation and logistics—entities that never before imagined the value of imagery to understanding their business.


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