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Location Data: More Valuable, Easier To Access

Location data is more important, and available, than ever, thanks to GPS-enabled smartphones.

You'd think there wouldn't be much new under the sun when it comes to maps and determining location. Hey, my car's already GPS nirvana, so why get greedy? Yet there's tremendous activity in this area--from Internet startups like Yelp to enterprise uses of location-based services. It feels like the latest techno-gold rush to those who've lived through other fads, yet there's real business value that IT can bring to the table.

Consider Chevron, the oil and gas giant. It hires boats from private operators to move goods among its oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. The boats have GPS tracking capability, but Chevron hadn't fully used that data until this past year, when it began collecting location information, feeding it into analytics software, and giving a Chevron team in a control room the authority to direct those boats. The result is "tens of millions" of dollars saved, says CIO Louis Ehrlich, thanks to more efficient routing that cuts the number of hours and miles the boats travel.

This past year, for example, Ford's IT team worked with a group of college students to develop in-car applications, using its new Fiesta compact as the development platform. Location data played a key part in several of the prototypes, including one that would let people share their locations with other vehicles traveling in a caravan somewhere. While that particular app may seem to be lightweight compared with saving tens of millions of dollars, the point is that IT organizations can influence whether companies embed location data in their products.

And then there's marketing. Location-based mobile phone ads not long ago were nothing but creepy. (How does that store know I'm on this street?) With location-based Web sites such as Foursquare and Gowalla, where people volunteer to check in at a location to tell their friends, restaurants and retailers reward people for visiting. Starbucks and McDonald's are among the companies that have tested giving coupons to people based on their check-ins. Foursquare says it has nearly 3 million members.

Search, too, promises to get more location-driven. Yelp, a booming site on which anyone can review a local business, lets users search for specific goods and services using a ZIP code--"sushi 10023"--or, from a mobile device, using their actual location. Given the growth of sites such as Yelp, and knowing that Google did $1 billion in search ads over mobile devices last quarter, it's no surprise that Marissa Mayer, the Google VP formerly in charge of search, just took over Google's nascent location and local services business.

InformationWeek: Nov. 1, 2010 Issue
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