GPS takes to the street
Business grows as new applications emerge
The dangerous unpredictability a SWAT
team faces when entering an unfamiliar
building to disarm a gunman is obvious.
The ability to know exactly where all the
team members are and silently exchange text
messages makes the situation a little more
Emerging technology that puts Global
Positioning System (GPS) and communication
tools into handheld computers and
phones is giving first responders those capabilities.
Government agencies are finding GPS
technology useful for tactical and routine
tasks, such as filling potholes. Layering new
applications on top of GPS solutions is a
growing business for contractors that many
say is still in its infancy.
Last summer, New York City Mayor
Michael Bloomberg launched the Street
Conditions Observation Unit (Scout) program.
Inspectors report street issues ? such
as potholes, graffiti or open fire hydrants ?
using GPS-enabled BlackBerrys. TeleNav
provides the electronic forms and GPS application
for the program.
"We wanted to come up with something to
help 311 go out and be proactive in finding
problems," said Girish Chhugani, executive
director of citywide initiatives for New York
City. "And we wanted something quick and
easy to use."
TeleNav's electronic forms provided the
ease of use that New York officials wanted.
When an inspector finds a problem, he or
she can enter details about it using the
BlackBerry keyboard. Then the location
of the problem is marked using GPS
However, Manhattan's famous skyscrapers
impede the technology. A phenomenon
called canyoning makes the GPS locations
there inaccurate about 40 percent of the
time, Chhugani said. In those cases,
inspectors manually type an address or
Despite the technology hurdles, the program
has sent more than 9,000 alerts to 311
since it was launched in October.
The technology also does job dispatching,
wireless timesheets and turn-by-turn navigation,
said Sal Dhanani, TeleNav's co-founder.
The other part of the application is a Web
site that allows officials to log on and see
where inspectors have been. It also has a dispatch
"All of that data can be integrated with a
back-end system that a government organization
might have," Dhanani said. "So if they
want to, for example, take that wireless
timesheet information and put it into a payroll
system, we have [Application
Programming Interfaces] that an integrator
can use to bring that data back into an organization's
Cities use the technology to track an array
of services. For example, it can track and
quickly reroute snowplows during storms.
Cities use the timesheet feature to ensure that
workers are actually at a job site when they
punch in at the beginning of a shift.
"There are so many city processes that can
be automated and taken paperless," Dhanani said. "I don't think we know what those
processes will be in the future necessarily."
Uses for the military and first responders
are among the biggest opportunities for integrating
GPS with other applications.
CHI Systems Inc. of Fort Washington, Pa.,
has an offering called the Small Unit
Situational Awareness system (SUSA). It
tracks individual warfighters or first responders.
The system runs on handheld units,
phones and other portable devices. It provides
tracking and collaboration in areas
with or without GPS capability.
The technology works in a field, on a road,
inside a building, or even inside a cave or
tunnel, said Jeffrey McCrindle, vice president
of sales and marketing at CHI.
The collaboration capabilities are attractive
to many of CHI's customers.
"We've demonstrated in an exercise where
someone is walking down a beach and tasks
[an unmanned aerial vehicle] to take a picture
of something further down the beach,"
McCrindle said. "Then the image is sent to
the person's handheld unit."
At this year's Super Bowl, GPS devices
were used to track and manage security
employees in real time via the Internet. The
GuardTrax Security Force Locator by
NovaTracker, of Cranford, N.J., uses a GPS
antenna and cellular communications to pinpoint
locations and activity. It combines that
data with mapping and satellite imagery software
that is accurate to within several feet.
The use of visualization tools to track people
or other assets is gaining momentum in
the government market. They are becoming
more popular because they accelerate analysis
for an increasing amount of information,
said David Leis, chief marketing officer for
the GuardTrax offering at NovaTracker.
"What took hours and manpower can now
be done in seconds via the Web," Leis said.
Another factor increasing the popularity of
visualization tools is that they are much
more capable today than they were even a
The key to a successful project is to carefully
evaluate what an agency needs to do
with a GPS solution, Leis said. GPS components
can be added to existing systems, or
agencies can buy an end-to-end system.
"In our case, we go to market with an end-to-
end solution because it can be implemented
much quicker and the benefits to the
organization or public can be realized almost
immediately," Leis said.Doug Beizer (email@example.com) is a staff
writer at Washington Technology.