How many decisions do you make in a single day that factor in location-based information? How much information in your data warehouses do you think contain references to a location? Would you say 25 percent to 30 percent? How about 80 percent? That's the figure most often quoted regarding the amount of data with a location component in a typical enterprise database. If you are FedEx or UPS, you don't make a move without location-based information. If you are in retail, you are not going to spend several million dollars acquiring land for your next megamall unless the demographic information yields the correct clientele within a convenient travel distance. And if you deploy a significant field force, you want to run the smallest number of vehicles with absolute efficiency — given today's gasoline prices. This entails routing, scheduling, knowing where your personnel are and minimizing drive distances, all of which are examples of "location intelligence."
Location intelligence has arrived as a key piece of the information supply chain for business process improvement. Google Earth and its competitor, Microsoft Virtual Earth, use satellite imagery and aerial photography that integrate street information. Google is using mapping technology to provide a unique visualization tool that has become a staple on cable TV and national news. As a result, C-level executives are asking about ways in which they can integrate their corporate data with location technology and get a bird's-eye view that may provide a better understanding of customer locations, as well as proximity to other geographically important features — such as competitors.
Desktop mapping, geographic information systems (GIS) and demographic analysis are nothing new. Since the early 1990s, companies such as Claritas, DeLorme, ESRI and MapInfo have sold GIS software and data as decision-support tools geared toward market research, real estate site selection and insurance risk mitigation. Today, the difference is twofold: First is ease of use, providing users with a simple tool for information searches. Web sites such as DemographicsNow.com have introduced a method for retrieving basic market information. More consumer electronics contain a mapping interface, raising the awareness of the plethora of information that can be easily displayed using maps. From Global Positioning System (GPS) wrist watches to in-vehicle navigation systems, consumers are inundated with maps. Cell phone services such as Verizon Wireless' VZNavigator provide subscribers with a location-based service (LBS) for locating places of interest, getting directions and even a map on their phone. The awareness of consumer applications is fueling the appetite of commercial users. Referring to Google Earth's viewing system, James Fallows, writing in The Atlantic Monthly (March 2006), said, "This sounds trivial, but I think it can profoundly reorient people's sense of geography."
The second difference is that mapping technology today supports protocols that allow better integration with enterprise systems. Corporations that need to leverage location-based information can now more efficiently expose geographic relationships to a broader group of business process managers and executives, who never knew they were missing key information. From customer relationship management to enterprise resource planning, maps complete the dashboards so familiar to many decision support tools.
'Geographically Enabling' BI
This new sense of "geographic enablement" is not lost on business intelligence (BI) providers. Oracle, the leader in integrating location technology with BI tools, delivers its database with the ability to manage, store and query geospatial data. The company offers enterprise database users a way to manipulate data with a location attribution and take advantage of the product's inherent security and indexing features. Oracle Locator provides support for simple feature management, map projections and visualization, while Oracle Spatial delivers geocoding, routing and spatial analysis.
Oracle is by no means alone. "Spatial information management (SIM) has transformed from a specialist application to a technology with broad relevance within many IT ecosystems. This transformation involves a multidimensional shift in platforms, vendors and users," noted IDC analysts in a December 2005 report. BI providers such as Hyperion Solutions, Information Builders Inc. (IBI), MicroStrategy and SAS Institute are collaborating with ESRI, MapInfo and others to integrate location technology with their platforms. Atlanta-based Cox Communications selected a MapInfo-MicroStrategy solution to analyze markets and support field marketing and sales activities. IBI has teamed with ESRI to integrate its iWay application with ESRI's ArcIMS Web-based mapping system to develop applications in insurance risk analysis and food stamp fraud.
Some BI vendors are holding back because they can't yet see the potential benefits of integrating location technology. "Proving the value of integrating business intelligence tools with mapping technology is a chicken-and-egg territory," says Peter Rossiter, president of Integeo, which offers tools that map data from BI sources. "We're doing the hard yards to build up the case. The sales forces of the BI vendors have to see the dollar in their pocket, and that they are losing deals because they don't have location analytic capabilities integrated with their products ... It takes time to demonstrate the ROI and business values that accrue from a proper merging of BI and GIS."
SOA and the Sensor Web
Future development of location intelligence applications may hinge on the use of service-oriented architectures (SOAs). "Increasingly capable service-oriented architectures break down integration barriers and drop the cost of entry for new entrepreneurs," points out IDC's David Sonnen. In fact, database administrators that leverage SOA and Web services are more likely to be the drivers of location-enabled solutions, given the need to integrate software with online data sources — especially where dynamic, real-time data are in use. Inventory control systems using radio frequency identification (RFID), for example, represent an opportunity to integrate real-time data with location technology. "There is a fast-growing trend toward service-oriented architectures and integration with real-time or near-real-time sensors for operational and decision support systems," says Jayant Sharma, Oracle's technical director of spatial products. "Many organizations are developing business strategies based on the concept of real-time sense and respond."
This need for real-time location data is driving a concept called "the sensor web." Ever since Wal-Mart Stores mandated the use of RFID technology from its suppliers for inventory management, a debate has raged over how to digest this information for better cost control. Currently, most RFID systems passively monitor inventory. As a palette of products passes an RFID reader, the RFID tag records the product information and location coordinates. Now, as the number of RFID-tagged products grows, there will be greater demand for knowing their location at any given time, as well as the anticipated time of arrival at their destinations. But RFID is just one piece of the supply chain information flow. Merge these sensors with myriad other remote sensors in roadway networks, GPS or cellular communications with real-time traffic control systems and the result is a growing "sensor web."
Where Location Intelligence is Used
One of the most cost-effective uses of location technology is in field service management (FSM). FSM entails the routing, tracking and scheduling of trucks, personnel and skill sets. On any given day, thousands of mobile field workers take to the streets, schedules in hand. But, along the way, things happen: A job takes longer than expected, a vehicle breaks down or a customer requests an emergency delivery. If the service company is managing a few workers, a call to a secondary driver to cover the schedule conflicts may suffice. If, however, there are hundreds of drivers to manage — each with different skill sets, time constraints or labor contracts — plus customers with different product inventories to replenish, service contracts to manage or highly perishable commodities to mobilize, an entire supply chain can be set into chaos if one element goes wrong.
In this case, dispatch managers must understand workload forecasting, workforce planning and service schedule optimization, and be able to communicate with field service personnel when problems arise. ClickSoftware's solutions, for example, integrate mapping technology from MapInfo (see screen at bottom of page 38) to help construct the physical geography of the daily service delivery schedule. ClickSoftware's president, Moshe BenBassat, says he helps customers manage goods and services where the supply chain leaves off. That is, where finished products enter the pipeline for delivery, as well as post-delivery support, disruptions in the work schedule can impact variable costs and eat into profits.