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Time For Businesses To Get Serious About Location Technology

The tech's still in its early days, but tracking a pizza delivery street by street shows what's possible.

It's time to pay attention to location-aware technology. Mobile location tracking is starting to pop up in everyday business uses, and companies that push ahead now could grab a powerful advantage with what, in just a couple of years, should be a commonplace tool on mobile phones.

At Wal-Mart, managers at about 3,000 stores now get messages to their mobile phones, customized by location, if bad weather's coming their way, whether that means dangerous high winds or a snowstorm that could spur a run on rock salt. In Alabama, Papa John's customers can track their pizza delivery street by street via, which uses data from drivers' GPS-enabled cell phones. In California's Contra Costa County, Sprint subscribers will soon get emergency alerts such as a wildfire warning, but only if they're in an at-risk area.

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This still is the early stage of adoption for location-aware services. But the trend's moving quickly, fueled by intense startup energy and a spate of big-vendor acquisitions, led by Nokia's $8 billion deal for digital map maker Navteq last fall. Thanks to less-expensive GPS on mobile devices, Web-based mapping, mobile search, and other related technologies, location-based services are coming to cell phones and other devices. InStat estimates that last year, 153 million cell phones were sold with integrated GPS, and that number will surge to 590 million a year by 2011. Alternatives to GPS, such as triangulation from cell towers, are also being put to new uses. Business IT departments have an opportunity in all this: Lead the way in taking advantage of a new wave of location information to improve sales and productivity.

An update every 15 seconds, if you really must must prove it's more than a novelty
(click image for larger view)

An update every 15 seconds, if you really must must prove it's more than a novelty.
Most companies tapping into this trend today are relying on vendors--many of them startups--specializing in location data to provide some kind of service.

That's what Wal-Mart's doing with WeatherBug, which has 8,000 weather-tracking stations based at U.S. schools and public-safety facilities. Its weather alert service, announced last summer, combines weather information with data from ESRI, a longtime provider of geographic information software, that can be sent to GPS-equipped Sprint mobile phones and devices. Verizon will be added soon, says WeatherBug VP Chris Brozenick.

For Wal-Mart, the messages are delivered through an arrangement between WeatherBug and Send Word Now, which provides the text message routing based on a store manager's location. Wal-Mart tested it in 40 stores last summer and has since expanded it to 3,000 stores, Brozenick says. Other customers include Broward County, Fla., which uses it to notify school principals, teachers on field trips, and coaches when dangerous weather's coming toward a school group.

At an 11-store chain of Papa John's restaurants in north Alabama, location data is being pushed directly to customers. Using an online-tracking system developed by startup TrackMyPizza, customers can watch online as their deliveries move street by street toward their doors. Drivers carry GPS-enabled handsets that feed location data to a TrackMyPizza server. There, the data is coupled with the customer's phone number, providing location updates every 15 seconds.

Sound like technology overkill, just to know your pizza hasn't gone astray? Rival Domino's thinks consumers want more such information about their orders, and it's doing a national rollout of a Web system that shows buyers when their pizzas have been prepared, cooked, then sent out the door. But it doesn't offer location once the pizza leaves the store.

At Papa John's, pizza tracking is delivering business benefits in its first two months by getting more people ordering online--a 100% jump in online ordering since the rollout, says Tom Van Landingham, the franchise operating partner. Online orders save phone-answering time, and Web customers spend about $2 more per order, since they can see the whole menu. About 18% of all delivery customers in the last 60 days have gone on the Web site to track their pizza. Van Landingham expects to begin using the tracking system to improve productivity behind the scenes, by plotting more efficient delivery routes, for instance. The service is only 2 months old, so it still needs to prove it's more than a novelty. But the chain proved it can be done.

TrackMyPizza is typical of the startup energy in location. It uses a mapping engine built by founders Randy Younger and Ken Blankshain, two telemetry scientists who spent 10 years tracking U.S. military missiles. It combines GPS data from cell phones with geodata available from the federal government. In the past, location tracking has been too expensive for most consumer uses such as pizza deliveries, says CEO David Neel. Now the company's exploring other everyday tracking options; it owns the URL Neel isn't sure what business model would support it, but wouldn't it be nice for parents not to have to walk their kids to the curb until the bus was almost there?

Contra Costa County, an area that includes oil refineries and 1.2 million residents and is prone to brush fires and earthquakes, in January started testing public-safety text-message alerts based on location to "maximize the relevance" of alerts, says Art Botterell, who manages the county's community warning system. But the service only works for citizens with Sprint cell phones. Sprint's the only carrier so far offering the service from SquareLoop, the startup providing the location-based alert technology, for which people can opt in via a Web site.

Even within these limits, considering what companies are doing today with location data should inspire IT managers to think about what uses might make sense for them.

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