Someone to Watch Over Us

19 Jun, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

Microgeomatics makes it easy to track movement and action indoors

From a recent experiment conducted at a clothing store in a mall, Michel Berthiaume, an associate researcher at the GeoBusiness Group, Université de Sherbrooke (Quebec, Canada), discovered something surprising about teenagers. For better or worse, about 80% of them are willing to surrender some of their privacy and allow someone to track their movements. On the good side, this made it easier for him to do his job, because he needed to observe and record their paths, by way of an RFID-enabled (radio frequency identification) tag attached to them. The data collected was subsequently analyzed, using temperature maps, pathway analysis, market segmentation, retail zones and geostatistics. As farfetched as it may seem, what he and his colleagues learned from scrutinizing the footsteps of these young shoppers may one day lead to improved mobile workforce management in corporations. He and his colleagues are developing something called microgeomatics, a kind of indoor GIS, a hybrid system that combines CAD, GIS, RFID, GPS and WiFi technologies.

Are We Ready?

The idea is to use a floor plan, easily available as CAD data, as a base map for recording and analyzing people and assets indoors. The territory is beyond the reach of aerial photography and survey data, so it’s closed off to typical geospatial tools. It’s also an area where RFID offers more accuracy than GPS (global positioning system). The difference in scales notwithstanding, the same principles for data collection and spatial analysis that are used in GIS can also be applied to this new brand of mini-GIS -- or, as the GeoBusiness Group prefers to call it, microgeomatics.

The GeoBusiness Group is developing microgeomatics, an emerging technology that combines CAD, GIS, RFID, GPS and WiFi. Using CAD drawings as base maps, microgeomatics facilitates thermal map and pathway analyses, among others.

An 18-year-old, iPod-clutching mall stroller with insatiable curiosity for high-tech gadgets probably doesn’t mind the idea of someone monitoring him or her, but how would the idea strike a corporate employee, perhaps someone who has read George Orwell’s 1984 and isn’t looking forward to the arrival of the Big Brother? Berthiaume acknowledges it’s an unsettled question, just as privacy issues in the Internet Age still remain unsettled. That’s why he’s quite content with the gradual pace at which microgeomatics research is advancing -- a pace that, he hopes, allows legislature and the public to come to terms with the technology and its implications before widespread adoption takes place.

Geomatics vs. Microgeomatics

“Microgeomatics and geomatics [what is generally understood as GIS] are not separate. In the future, they’ll have to be integrated,” says Berthiaume. “In some instances, you’ll need microgeomatics; in others, you’ll need geomatics.” Let’s say that a company like Dell, which sells its PCs and notebooks primarily through the Web, has noticed an increase of units reported “never received” when shipping products to a certain region. If these shipments disappeared in transit, geomatics may help identify the delivery routes where they were compromised. By the same token, microgeomatics may help identify specific locations inside a warehouse where they were compromised. Hence, Berthiaume points out, the combination of microgeomatics and geomatics can be a powerful tool for supply chain management.

Data collected in GIS is mainly of impersonal nature -- demographics, population breakdowns, land use, water use, electricity lines, traffic flows and so on. On the other hand, data required by microgeomatics -- such as the precise location of a specific individual at a given time -- may be deemed highly personal by some. “People’s mentality, the way they think, will have to evolve. If we go too fast, people will reject it,” remarks Berthiaume.

Indoor vs. Outdoor Spatial Vocabulary

“The same products move in trucks, on busses or on foot, indoor or outdoor -- they’re just objects [from the computer’s point of view],” says Berthiaume. But a smooth data flow between microgeomatics and geomatics seems, at least for the time being, is impossible, because people have different terminologies for indoor and outdoor cartography. “When you’re indoor, you think about room numbers; outside, you think about latitude and longitude.” One of the things Berthiaume and his colleagues have to work on is to ensure that coordinates output from microgeomatics can easily be converted into GIS-compatible data.

The Key to Indoor Geography

It seems simple enough in a test case to implement the technology. Berthiaume and his colleagues equipped willing participants with tags while they roamed inside the store. Afterward, the tags were collected back from the volunteers. In corporate environment, the same can be accomplished using name badges, for example. Berthiaume says he and his fellow researchers are currently experimenting with attaching the locator tag to a key chain.

The GeoBusiness Group foresees microgeomatics becoming integrated with corporate business applications, such as CRM (customer relationship management), ERP (enterprise resource management) and supply chain management applications. A wide range of potential business applications exists: fleet tracking, route optimization and location-based tourism information, just to name a few.

Because it is an emerging technology, there’s no easy answer for pricing. “At this stage,” says Berthiaume, “the price is low enough for early adopters to experiment, but not low enough for widespread implementation.” The GeoBusiness Group welcomes technology providers who are interested in partnership.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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