ArcUser Online

Search ArcUser


Intersecting Technologies
Create Location Services

ArcUser April-June 2001
GIS powers location services

Location services are changing the way businesses and individuals operate.

Defined very broadly, location services aren't new at all. A location service is any service or application that extends spatial information processing, or GIS capabilities, to end users via the Internet and/or wireless network. Familiar Internet mapping sites such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency's EnviroMapper have been providing location services for years.

Anywhere, anytime, any wireless device-this is the short definition of the rapidly growing field of location services. It's where wireless and GIS technologies meet on the Web and it is changing the way businesses and individuals operate.

GIS has always been about location but the current buzz surrounding location services is tied to the use of mobile devices of all kinds and the development of the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) that allows mobile device users access to the Web anywhere with wireless network coverage. Location services extend the type of services that the Internet has been supplying for some time-plane schedules, prices, weather, driving directions. The difference now is that these services can be accessed virtually anywhere and can be tailored to the user's requirements and current location. The value of a location service comes not just from locating the user but from supplying geographically contextual information such as routing on the fly.

Forces Driving Location Services

In 1996, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated that the geographic position of all cellular phone devices must be detectable within a radius of 125 meters in 67 percent of all cases so that emergency services could be dispatched to the caller's location. An estimated 100,000 or more calls per day come into 911 centers from wireless phones. Often these calls are made by drivers on highways who have difficulty specifying their precise location. Service centers relate a wireless caller's location to a public safety access point (PSAP) that dispatches emergency services.

Once the capability of locating wireless devices was in place, possible nonemergency uses became attractive to wireless providers in a highly competitive economic environment. Wireless communications services have continued to grow at a ferocious pace. International Data Corporation (IDC) has predicted that the number of global wireless subscribers will increase from approximately 303 million in 1998 to 1.1 billion in 2003. Competition has driven down the price of both wireless handsets and the cost of usage and, coupled with expanding network coverage, has made wireless services attractive and reasonably affordable for consumers. Extending and retaining market share in the face of declining revenues and needing to recoup the cost of building infrastructure, carriers have been driven to create extended service features and enhanced wireless devices.

taxi hailing

With the ability to locate existing users spatially, carriers interested in location services needed only to come up with a method for connecting wireless devices to the ubiquitous Web. Current wireless devices, constrained by small screens and limited processing power and bandwidth, can't handle HTML documents. WAP evolved to deal with this reality. Handheld Device Markup Language (HDML), devised specifically for these devices, became the basis for Wireless Markup Language (WML), the core specification for WAP. While WAP made the Web accessible to wireless users, the conversion from WAP to Web is not flawless. Larger Web publishers such as and produce WAP-friendly versions of their pages. These considerations notwithstanding, the bottom line is that with the advent of WAP, wireless users had the Web "to go."

Once wireless service met the Internet, e-commerce began to morph into m-commerce as businesses seized opportunities to market products and services designed especially for the mobile consumer. The market potential of location services is tremendously appealing to businesses. Ovum, an analyst and consulting company specializing in converging technologies, predicts that end user spending on m-commerce goods and services could rise to more than $200 billion by 2005.

The geometric growth of the i-mode cellular phones service from the Japanese communications corporation, NTT DoCoMo, Inc., may foreshadow the level of demand for location services. Users of i-mode can reserve airline and concert tickets, check bank balances, transfer money, get weather reports, and send and receive e-mail with PC and PDA users as well as other i-mode users. In just two years, i-mode has grown to more than 19 million subscribers and nearly 600 businesses provide information to the system.

Bimodal Technology

Like the Pushmepullyou of Dr. Dolittle fame, location services can go both ways--allowing users to pull information from a network based on location or having information pushed from the network when location parameters are met. Pull services will be familiar to veteran Internet users--travel directions that locate the user and/or provide driving directions, taxi hailing services, mobile Yellow Pages that locate the nearest business of a specified type, buying services that notify the user of proximity to the supplier of a specific item, or instant information services that enable users to point a wireless device at a landmark or facility and obtain information about it.

Push applications are far less abundant. These services qualify a device user as a potential customer or recipient of a service based on location and include friend finders, traffic alerts, and zone alerts as well as targeted marketing. Privacy and user authentication issues can make these types of applications controversial. Location accuracy limitations of the existing wireless networks is another barrier.

Location services streamlining business

The location services discussed so far have focused on the consumer. However, location services have tremendous potential for optimizing business operations. Using location service applications, asset monitoring can improve service levels and keep down costs, whether the assets are vending machines, utility meters, or delivery trucks. Machines such as commercial air conditioning units can notify a central office of malfunction so that the nearest service technician can be dispatched. Location services can make workers who deliver, repair, sell, and inspect more efficient.

Telematics encompass multiple service categories by incorporating E-911 response, in-vehicle navigation, electronic Yellow Page directories, access to a human operator for concierge services, remote door unlocking, and advertising. The ability of GIS to bring disparate data together should help create new types of compound services.

GIS Makes It All Possible

GIS software makes location services possible by creating, maintaining, serving, and accessing spatial data. ArcGIS is highly suited for this marketplace. As an open and interoperable platform, it can manage large amounts of spatial data and integrate with mainstream IT environments and the Internet. ArcInfo creates and maintains the spatial data while ArcIMS delivers and combines data from many sources. ArcSDE the GIS gateway, facilitates management of spatial data in relational database management systems and is a core component of location based services for customer relationship management. RouteMAP IMS provides point-to-point driving directions for all types of businesses. ArcPad, GIS for handheld computers, can operate as a stand-alone application or as a client for ArcIMS.

In addition to GIS software, Esri has worked to improve data quality and availability through the Geography Network. This portal site uses the Internet to deliver up-to-date geographic content--data, maps, services--needed by location services. Esri business partners develop location service applications that leverage Esri GIS technology. SignalSoft Corporation, Xypoint Corporation, and SCC Communications Corporation are companies that deliver E-911 services using Esri products.

GIS provides the geographic context location services require. The availability of services provided by this new technology has the potential to generate an order of magnitude change in the marketplace that could be profoundly felt the world over. By weaving GIS tightly into the fabric of everyday life, location services can be seen as the basis of a truly societal GIS. See "Location Services are Here--Now" in this issue of ArcUser magazine for examples of the many types of GIS-powered locations services currently available.

Return to Table of Contents for April–June 2001 issue

Contact Us | Privacy | Legal | Site Map