Charting an enterprise GPS strategy

Though wireless carriers aren't widely offering location-based services yet, many organizations are moving forward without them by using mobile devices and the Global Positioning System (GPS) to determine a user's location.

Nextel Communications Inc. has handsets with embedded GPS transceivers and add-ons for PDAs and laptops are readily available, but businesses shouldn't just jump on the GPS bandwagon, said Carl Zetie, an analyst with Cambridge Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. Zetie recently authored a report titled "Integrating GPS with Enterprise Mobile Applications." We caught up with him to learn more about how businesses can take advantage of location-based data.

How should companies deal with employee privacy concerns? I have definitely seen some failures. A lot of devices 'fall' out of truck windows while crossing the Mississippi. Employers need to think about privacy issues outside of working hours. Many unions will object to employees being tracked on their breaks. But I have also seen other situations where employees are delighted to have a system like this because it ensures that their...

hours are tracked accurately. Businesses have to make sure that there is some incentive for them. Some companies give bigger bonuses if there is increased productivity. Without some kind of incentive, these systems are likely to fail.

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 Are GPS systems worth the cost?
The GPS hardware is extremely cheap. A lot of people are using hosted work-tracking applications for about $30 a month per employee. That can pay for itself in the first three days of the month. A lot of ROI comes in unexpected ways. With work-tracking applications, you might find that the amount of overtime people are claiming suddenly drops, or that sales people are more productive because the sales people know that managers know where they are. When should a business use a handset-based solution like GPS, or a network-based approach like one available through a carrier?
A lot of companies are going with GPS-based systems. You can go out and buy a GPS-enabled Palm or phone and be up and running very inexpensively. And it works everywhere. Even if devices are out of cell network coverage areas, they still collect the data and then transmit it when they are back in range.

I believe some AT&T Wireless devices have location-based services, but most carriers don't which is why a number of businesses are not waiting for the carriers. How accurately does a user's location need to be identified?
Businesses could end up spending a lot of money getting very detailed location information that they don't need. They need to always consider how the information will be used. If they want to know exactly where trucks are in a warehouse, they could use location enabled Wi-Fi; if it is pallets in a warehouse, they should look at RFID. Companies should not consider GPS technology unless they need a wide area of coverage. Often knowing where someone is within 15 meters is plenty. Businesses need to ask themselves what question they are trying to answer and go from there. Too often they start out asking what technology they need. How well can location information be integrated into back-end applications?
The hosted model is proving to be popular for location-based services. A number of startup companies will host GPS-enabled applications or mapping servers. If you can't find someone to host it, you can get the GPS data into your own back-end systems, and then use a map server to map the location data. But this is one of those areas where the hosting model is proving to be the most effective.

Businesses could end up spending a lot of money getting very detailed location information that they don't need.
Carl Zetie
Forrester Research

 You say that location data on its own is not useful. What kinds of data does location information need to be combined with?
For example, one company has an application that uses location [data] to tell where an employee is when he clocks in on the job. But that is not very useful. You need to know whether she is near a job site, or where she is in relation to where she should be. In addition, if you have to dispatch someone to a job site in an emergency, you may not want to send the closest technician, but instead the one who can get there the quickest, has the proper skills and the parts on hand. It may also be that the best person will have to work overtime to get the job done, so hours on the clock are important to consider as well. What are the common mistakes enterprises make when considering location-based applications?
On the technology side, businesses need to think about coverage. GPS works well outdoors, but not inside. GPS also uses a lot of battery power. There are also [usability] tradeoffs. You can get a phone with built-in GPS, but some of them have small antennae so the reception is not good. But a separate aerial [antenna] may not be as convenient.

You also need to consider business processes. Though you can get GPS coverage anywhere, you may not be able to get cell coverage in the same places, so the data will not get back to the home office in a timely way. So you could have a field service worker [gathering] GPS data, but no one else can access it because it is not being transmitted. So, in that instance, you need to decide if it is still valuable.

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