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IBM uses RFID to track conference attendees

Data would be used for future planning, marketing, even meal times

October 16, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - LAS VEGAS -- At its Information on Demand conference here, IBM is deploying RFID technology on name tags worn by attendees that automatically tracks their session and meal attendance.

This is the first time that IBM has used RFID technology at this conference, and the company is not making a secret of it. There are signs at the registration desk offering attendees the option of getting a name tag without the chip.

Of the 6,500 people here, approximately 2% didn't want a name tag with an RFID chip in it, said Mary Ann Alberry, IBM's conference manager.

From a simple unique identifier on the chip, begins what could be a long tail of data analysis.

The chip's 24-character identifier includes the name, title and company of the person wearing it. There is no other personal information on the chip. As a person walks through the door leading into a conference session, an RFID receiver logs the chip's data. The system, by AllianceTech in Austin is networked and the data is received in real time by its on-site systems at the conference. The data is organized in a DB2 database.

The RFID system, coupled with what the conference knows about the person wearing the name badge, is providing lots of raw data, and Alberry said the company hasn't figured out all the ways it may use it. She said the data will be used to help organizers with future conference planning, such as optimizing sessions around interests and demands of conference attendees. It will also let organizers know the number of people who have received meals so they can plan meals in such a way that food is available at the right time. Because RFID keeps count of people getting meals at the conference, it creates a means to audit and help control conference costs, she said.

From an individual's RFID data, it would be possible to extrapolate users' product and training interest based on the sessions they attend. Alberry said she can envision one-to-one marketing potential in the future, but said that's a step that would first require consent of the attendee, possibly at the time of registration. "You have to make sure that they opt-in to being contacted," she said.

The real-time aspects of the system help with day-to-day conference management. If a room gets filled to capacity, a decision can be made to repeat the session. If a person needs to be reached in an emergency, he can also be tracked down, Alberry said.

Many conferences already track who enters sessions by scanning bar codes on name badges, but Art Borrego, CEO of AllianceTech, said RFID allows people to enter a room without delay. He said conference goers have accepted it in much the same way many use RFID to avoid having to stop on a highway to pay a toll. "It's commonplace now," he said.

But Bill Miller, an attendee and independent DB2 consultant working in Frankfurt said he has "a somewhat negative opinion" of the RFID tags and worried about the potential that it could be abused. He didn't reject the RFID tag at registration, but said he had thought of removing it but hasn't.

If IBM officials aren't certain how far they'll take RFID at conferences, the company nonetheless sees huge business potential in them. Michael Borman, vice president of worldwide sales of the IBM software group, told attendees at a session Monday that there are more than 2 billion RFID tags in use worldwide. "The information that gets created from RFID is actionable," he said, meaning it can be used to help deliver customer services.

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