Beyond the Routing Algorithm

14 May, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong

A brief look at the benefits and dilemmas of location-based tracking

Twice a week a delivery truck loaded with bread trays would pull up to a certain warehouse. The driver would unload several trays, collect cash payment from someone at the site, and then drive away. Just an urban routine, nothing out of ordinary -- or so it seemed. In reality, the driver was committing a series of thefts. The stops he'd been making were unauthorized; he was delivering the breads to a competitor of the firm that had contracted the trucking company. And the stealing might have gone on interminably were it not for SecureTrakker, a Web-based tracking technology from Cubistix.

The Bread Crumb Trail
When SecureTrakker is being used to track a vehicle, any time that vehicle remains idle in any one place for two consecutive pings, or approximately 30 minutes, SecureTrakker logs it as a stop, explained Keith Armonaitis, president and CEO of Cubistix. "If the stop is approved, or authorized, it'll come up green. But if it's not an approved stop, it shows up in yellow," triggering an alert.

Cubistix' SecureTrakker is a Web-based mobile fleet management program. Using Sprint Business Mobility Framework and the company's own proprietary software built around Microsoft MapPoint, the application connects to Sprint's cellular data network to access the location of mobile phones and standalone tracking devices.

When the bread maker, Cubistix' client, noticed that the volumes of merchandise transported on a certain route kept diminishing inexplicably, the company retrieved the logs from SecureTrakker. "Our software allows you to go back in time. They've been using our products for years, so they can go back up to three years," Armonaitis said.

"Looking at all the unauthorized stops, they noticed that, during the days of the volume decrease, the vehicle was always seen parked at a location, recognizable as a facility of their competitor," Armonaitis said. In the stakeout operation that followed, the culprit was caught red-handed while exchanging money.

Using the same logs, the company was able to determine the exact amount of the commodity stolen. "Let's say he'd been selling four palettes per trip," Armonaitis explained. "At twice a week, it comes to eight palettes a week. He'd been making these unauthorized stops for four weeks, so it comes to 32 palettes. And each palette holds about 10 cases of bread." From there on, it was just a matter of simple math to figure out how much money they needed to recover from the guilty party.

Intended for small and midsize businesses, SecureTrakker is designed to manage, track and protect the users' mobile workforces and fleet assets. Using the nationally available Sprint Business Mobility Framework and Cubistix' proprietary software built around Microsoft MapPoint, SecureTrakker connects to Sprint's cellular data network to access the location of mobile phones and stand-alone tracking devices.

The Ethics of Location Intelligence
Very few CEOs would elaborate on the misdeeds their products might invite, but Armonaitis agreed to share his views. "In one instance, we refused to sell our services to someone because of what I perceived to be unethical use," he said.

Armonaitis was once approached by the owner of a small business, a prospective client. He explained to the potential buyer that, to enter into contract, a minimum of five devices must be tracked. "He said he was willing to pay for five devices, would even pay for a full year in advance, in fact, but just needed one device tracked," Armonaitis recalled.

Feeling uneasy, Armonaitis verified with Sprint the ownership of the cell phone number the business owner wanted to track. "The name on the account had the same last name as the gentleman's, but a feminine first name," Armonaitis said. "We thought it might be a spouse or a former spouse. Immediately, we realized there could be a problem." It was one sale Armonaitis didn't mind losing.

Such privacy issues are the reason Cubistix doesn't cater to individuals. The company sells its products and services exclusively to businesses. With the advances in location intelligence technologies come potential abuses as well.

"The case laws might have changed recently," Armonaitis said, "but I don't know of any legal precedence, no case that ended up in a trial and became case law, that's applicable here." If this is true, it's up to vendors like Cubistix to prevent unscrupulous parties from gaining access to the technology.

The Quest
"The Holy Grail," Armonaitis said, "is to be able to tie together the GIS front end and the real-time data systems in the back end. We should be able to do it in a way that doesn't require a lot of investment."

At the recent Location Intelligence Conference (see "Map-Enabled Enterprises on the Rise," Cadalyst Daily, April 23), Armonaitis was a featured speaker for the session titled "Bad Data, Missing Metadata and Other Geospatial Data Tribulations." He believes location intelligence should go beyond algorithmic routings of points.

"This has happened to all of us," he said. "You printed the driving directions off an online mapping program to visit a friend in a different city. When you got there, your friend asked, 'Why did you take that route?' And he showed you a much shorter way to get there."

And that's not something that can be rule driven or programmed. It needs active empirical data collection -- making phone calls, sending out field crews, interviewing hundreds of people on the ground. He realizes it's a costly proposition, but insists, "there's something to be said about local intelligence."

If someone has figured out a way to digitally encapsulate this elusive location-specific human knowledge, Armonaitis would like to hear from him or her.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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