Estate agents have always known the importance of location when selling a house: the proximity of a property to a train or tube station, shops or other facilities can make a considerable difference to the price that can be obtained. Technologies that are location-aware are increasingly becoming hot property.
Geographic information systems (GIS) are far from new, with suppliers like ESRI and MapInfo (acquired in 2007 by Pitney Bowes) having been around for decades. However, GIS has traditionally had a niche role, restricted to workstation software used in the back offices of organisations such as energy utilities and insurance companies.
The rise of mobile is changing that picture. Internet analytics company Comscore reckons that almost one third of internet page views in the UK are now from mobiles and tablets. Half of Twitter's tweet from a mobile device, and one third of Facebook's customers use Facebook Mobile. The latest quarterly Monetate Survey (published in February 2014) shows that Ecommerce sites now find that one third of visitors come from a mobile or tablet, up from just one fifth a year previously.
These trends create considerable opportunities in a range of industries, from targeted advertising through to municipal government encouraging citizens to report potholes in streets, a US innovation that in December 2013 caused the UK Department of Transport to invested in an app for that very purpose. With one billon smartphones in the world already, there is little doubt as to the potential of applications that are mobile aware. New ones appear all the time: apps such as Waze and Inrix use crowdsourcing to help drivers plot better traffic flow, with mobile devices sharing location, heading and speed via an app. Does this sound a bit esoteric or merely nice to have? In June 2013 Google bought Waze for a none too shabby sum of £838 million.
The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta uses spatial software to incorporate standardised address management and spatial to monitor the occurrence of hepatitis, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases across the United States. The property insurance industry has long used such software to help it understand whether buildings are, for example, in a flood plain.
This seemingly unstoppable mobile trend has caused an upswing of interest in technologies that can actually deliver useful location information to and from a mobile device. Geocoding is the process of assigning precise latitude and longitude information to a particular location, such as a street address. Reverse geocoding, as the name suggests, works the other way, and uses a latitude and longitude to discover the nearest address or place of interest. Data quality software has long been used to validate an address, but nowadays many data quality tools can go much further, by enriching an address with additional information. For example, a business address can be enriched by associating with additional information, such as showing the number of employees at a given company site. The same software can show the distance to the nearest amenities, such as the nearest petrol station, ATMs or shops. If combined with demographic data, such geographic analysis can help retailers plan new site locations based on traffic flow and the average income of consumers within a given distance of a particular address. Not all geocoding software is created equal, and both Twitter and Facebook have recently signed deals with the same software company to use its geocoding abilities within their mobile applications; this can be seen, for example, in "check in" features of mobile apps, and location tags for tweets.
A fascinating example of the use of such technology that I came across recently was a UK county council, not usually a type of organisation associated with state of the art technology. Harrow Council used aerial imagery to tackle the problem of unscrupulous landlords renting out sheds and garages to house transient construction workers. Aircraft flew over the borough, providing thermal images and using laser distance technology to map unexpected hot spots, for example where heat at night indicated large numbers of people sleeping in areas where there were no houses. In order to make sense of all this, the aerial imaging data needed to be combined with land registry and other data using a geographic information system. The finished analysis has allowed the council to send investigators to suspicious locations. The same thermal imaging has also shown up cannabis factories, which require powerful growing lamps, at least in cold climates like the UK.
We are only at the beginning of a revolution in the way that location becomes a key component in many applications, old and new. As the world increasingly switches to mobile devices, more and more ingenious applications will be developed to take advantage of this. Companies that have expertise in geocoding and geographic information systems will surely be in a strong position to profit from this trend.