On the Corporate Radar

Organizations are homing in on the potential impact of geospatial tracking and analysis technology.

When crime strikes in Dover, N.H., police officers on the scene can get help more quickly than ever before. That’s because GPS equipment in squad cars pinpoints the location of each unit. “The dispatchers can see the cruisers moving around and the incidents they’re responding to,” says Michael Fenton, IT administrator for the department. “It has decreased our response times. The dispatcher now looks to the map displaying locations of all units and assigns the closest available unit.”

The department also uses a geographic information system to analyze crime trends and even to schedule officers’ beats.

Geographic information systems (GIS) and tools that make use of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite technology are not just for mapmakers, navigators and military analysts anymore. These technologies are becoming strategic components in a surprisingly diverse array of industries, from construction and trucking to marketing and health care.

“We’re seeing a lot of growth, with businesses and government agencies blending geospatial stuff in with other applications,” says Dave Sonnen, an analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

Here are some examples of pioneering users of geospatial technologies:

Loma Linda University Medical Center (LLUMC) in Loma Linda, Calif., uses GPS devices and ArcGIS software from Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI) to locate and dispatch ambulances and rescue helicopters, and to plot the fastest routes to area trauma centers — in some cases reducing response and transport time from a half-hour or more to a lifesaving few minutes. All emergency responders in Southern California can access LLUMC’s Advanced Emergency Geographic Information System (AEGIS) via the Web.

Caterpillar Inc., a maker of equipment for mining, construction and agriculture, offers its GPS AccuGrade technology, developed in-house, as a feature in its bulldozers, graders and other construction vehicles. AccuGrade tracks a machine’s blade location and tells it where to move next based on preprogrammed coordinates. In the past, an operator would base blade movements on measurements written on wooden stakes in the ground. The improved precision translates into higher productivity at construction sites, says Tom Bucklar, North American region manager for machine control and guidance at Peoria, Ill.-based Caterpillar. “GPS has increased productivity in construction [projects] by 40% or more,” says Bucklar, attributing much of that to the fact that operators now get accurate measurements more quickly.

At the Dover Police Department, GIS software from Queues Enforth Development Inc. and MapInfo Corp. is used to map crime trends and schedule beats. Incident reports appear in real time on a map viewed by dispatchers, along with the locations and status of police vehicles. Later, a graphical analysis of the calls — including the times, locations and nature of the incidents, as well as other details — is used to forecast criminal trends and schedule patrols to help prevent crime and respond to incidents more quickly.

There are about two dozen vendors of GIS applications, including MapInfo, ESRI, Cadcorp Ltd., Autodesk Inc., Oracle Corp. and Intergraph Corp. Many offer vertical-market packages, such as route-optimization software for trucking. There are also open-source GIS products, such as the Geographic Resources Analysis Support System developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To add location and tracking capabilities, GIS vendors often partner with GPS receiver and antenna makers, like Trimble Navigation Ltd.

GIS applications can be used with other information, such as demographic data, crime statistics or traffic reports. For instance, LLUMC feeds traffic and weather data into AEGIS, enabling ambulance dispatchers to quickly evaluate road conditions and alternate routes. It also receives live GPS data from fire and police departments, hospitals and emergency medical services providers, so it can identify the closest responder in an emergency as well as which hospital emergency rooms can accept more patients.

“We’re probably the first large [health care] system to bring all of those together,” says Dr. Jeff Grange, EMS director at LLUMC.

At Edens & Avant, a shopping center developer in Columbia, S.C., GIS manager David Beitzuses ESRI’s Business Analyst GIS software and demographic data to map development projects and analyze competing developments, traffic patterns and real estate values.

“We constantly use GIS to analyze new sites and markets — not only to figure out if a site is viable, but also what a good tenant mix would be and how it would blend in with the area,” says Beitz.

Beitz is also starting to use GPS tools to map routes for helicopter tours with potential tenants. He tags key areas of the route with GPS coordinates, which are uploaded to the helicopter’s navigational system. The pilot can then fly the route without asking for directions, and the tour guide is better prepared, says Beitz.

No Shrink-Wrapped Systems

Interesting as they can be, these applications are not plug-and-play. There are often technical problems to address before deploying a geospatial system. One involves the potential for gaps in cellular network coverage. While GPS receivers can usually get signals from the GPS satellites — with occasional blips in tunnels or deep valleys — they may not always be able to relay them back to the home office over a cellular network. “The network might go down for 30 minutes for upgrades,” notes the Dover Police Department’s Fenton. “Or there could be a problem with a cell tower. We have no control over that.”

Standard GPS technology is accurate to within a few yards, but that may not be precise enough for certain uses. For example, GreenLeaf, a food distributor in the San Francisco Bay area, uses ESRI’s ArcLogistics route-mapping software and GPS devices on its trucks to help it plan routes.

“We can see how the driver actually ran the route and go back and make adjustments,” says Frank Ballentine, vice president and general manager of GreenLeaf, noting that the system also enables the company to tell customers where their deliveries are at any given moment.

The system generally works smoothly, but it can get confused when delivery sites are close together. “It’s pretty accurate, but if there are two or three restaurants in one block, it won’t show the deliveries for all of them,” says Ballentine.

With more sophisticated — and expensive — correction technology, systems can be accurate to within one meter. Even greater precision can be achieved when tracking movements within a confined space — such as a construction site or a harbor (see story at left).

Another potential challenge is integration. John Handler, president of Truck Dispatching Innovations Inc. in Chicago, says that organizations often must do some integration work to get GIS and GPS tools to work together or to link them with other applications that must send or receive geospatial data. “This is not a black-box solution,” notes Handler.

Sometimes just getting two sets of GPS coordinates to match can be difficult. IDC’s Sonnen notes that data in maps often doesn’t mesh precisely with data from GPS receivers. With more than 100 national mapping agencies as well as private suppliers producing maps of everything from city streets to waterways, there is a great deal of diversity in the granularity of image resolution. “You mash two together and then decide how accurate it is,” Sonnen says.

Another challenge is that there are a variety of formats for GIS data, but that problem is slowly being resolved. Many, though not all, vendors now support the Geography Markup Language (GML) developed by the Open Geospatial Consortium, says James Brayshaw, director of sales and market development at Ordnance Survey, the U.K.’s national mapping agency. He believes the adoption of GML will help eliminate many data integration problems.

“If the data is not provided in a common format, then you have to merge them all together and put them into a format to work in my application,” says Brayshaw. “Some of the issues of data integration and coordination are going away, but there’s still a lot of information out there that’s not in GML format.”

In addition to developing GML, the Open Geospatial Consortium is working on several other standards for interoperability among GIS applications.

While the GIS software market overall is growing at just 5% or 6% annually, says Sonnen, the market for GIS and GPS technologies embedded in other applications, such as for insurance underwriting or utilities management tools, is experiencing a much bigger growth surge — around 25%.

Consumer use of GPS and GIS has shot up as well, thanks to free services like Google Earth, which have increased public awareness of geospatial applications. “Most of the major systems integrators have Google Earth practices now,” says Sonnen. “Companies want to keep track of their customers, their facilities and assets, and their transportation routes.”

Hildreth is a Waltham, Mass.-based writer specializing in enterprise IT technologies. You can contact her at Sue.Hildreth@comcast.net.

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