by Alice Dragoon

GIS Technology Becoming More Commonplace in Daily Operations

May 15, 20039 mins
MobileSmall and Medium Business

We may live in the age of e-mail and instant messaging, but being in the right place at the right time still has its advantages. Customers expect on-time deliveries?and if you can’t get to them right away to help in an emergency, your competitor will. Location matters.

As GIS tools and data sources become increasingly sophisticated and affordable, they’re helping more companies and governments understand precisely where their trucks, their workers and their resources are, where they need to go to serve a customer?and the best way to get from here to there.

Now that it’s becoming feasible for companies to equip their employees with such devices as GPS-enabled phones, workers in the field are becoming what David Schell, president of the nonprofit Open GIS Consortium, calls human cursors?individuals who serve as windows into what’s happening in their locations. GIS inverts the traditional office-centric computing model, says Schell, giving companies “widely dispersed capabilities for looking at the environment.” He predicts that spatial data is going to become far more important to many organizations that never had to deal with it before?a new basis on which they can manage their infrastructures.

Yes, there are potential pitfalls. GPS doesn’t work inside buildings or underground without special amplification tools, for example. And the U.S. Department of Defense, which owns the GPS satellites on which many systems rely, could choose to reduce the signal accuracy to prevent enemy soldiers or terrorists from taking advantage of the system.

Despite such hurdles, optimized routing, intelligent site selection, mapping and analysis of crime and disease patterns, and the ability to get turn-by-turn directions on a cell phone are all possible, thanks to GIS. The concept of human cursors may sound futuristic, but here are some intriguing current applications of GIS that suggest otherwise.

Managing the Mobile Workforce

The advent of GPS- and Java-enabled mobile phones is ushering in a new era of connectedness for Roto-Rooter’s mobile employees. Most people calling the plumbing company are in a bad mood (they’ve got water in their basement or just suffered a cold shower), so the faster Roto-Rooter can get one of its 1,500-plus technicians to a customer’s house, the more likely it’ll get the business. But getting the right person to the job efficiently isn’t easy when 90 percent of your operation is responding to emergencies. “We don’t know at 8 o’clock in the morning what most of our jobs are going to be at 3 o’clock in the afternoon because the emergency hasn’t happened yet,” says Roto-Rooter CIO Steve Poppe. “And sometimes [technicians] are not exactly where we think they are. Guys can pass each other on the expressway, one going north and one going south, because the dispatcher didn’t see the whole field of play.”

Since 1996, Poppe has been eager to replace the techs’ pagers with handhelds linked to the network. But he didn’t want to get locked into a particular server, the cost of handhelds was prohibitive, and Poppe didn’t have the $7 million he estimated he’d need to develop the software.

So it’s no surprise that Poppe was first in line to pilot eTrace, a mobile workforce management hosted service from Gearworks. The eTrace software, which Roto-Rooter launched in April, was first deployed on Nextel’s new GPS- and Java-enabled i58sr phone (although Poppe can upgrade phones since the software is Java-based). When a customer calls, the dispatcher types in the customer’s ZIP code or address, creating a map showing the job site in relation to all local techs with the required expertise. The dispatcher can see not only who’s closest to the new job but whether each tech is available, in the middle of a job or within 15 minutes of finishing, which helps the dispatcher choose the best person for the assignment. Techs can push a button and get turn-by-turn driving directions on their phones.

A planned software upgrade will also reduce paperwork; instead of handwriting invoices, techs will use software on their phones. The techs (who work on commission) will hit a button that notifies the dispatcher that they’re closing out a job and will soon be available for their next assignment. Then, they’ll punch in appropriate charges and get a reminder to offer the customer drain-care products. Tax rates will also be tied to the customer’s GPS location. Techs will then beam the information from their phones to a small wireless printer, which will also let them swipe credit cards and capture customer signatures electronically (thus qualifying Roto-Rooter for a lower rate from credit card vendors, which Poppe says will help pay for the project). Poppe expects ROI on the project within a year.

Special Delivery

GIS is also helping companies differentiate their delivery services and meet demand for ever-shrinking delivery windows. UltraEx, a West Coast company that specializes in same-day deliveries (think emergency blood supplies and computer parts), equips all of its vehicles with @Road’s GPS receivers and wireless modems. In addition to giving dispatchers a big-picture view of the entire fleet (and discouraging drivers from goofing off), @Road helps UltraEx keep understandably nervous clients happy by letting them track the location and speed of their shipments on the Web in real-time. This Delivery 411 service, which UltraEx codeveloped with @Road, shows customers a map of the last place the satellite detected the delivery vehicle and how fast it was traveling.

Dispatchers can choose the closest driver for each job, and drivers who own their vehicles can’t fudge their mileage sheets because @Road reports exact mileage for each vehicle. UltraEx spends roughly $2 a day per vehicle to have @Road, “but if the driver can make one more pickup per day, we’re way ahead,” says Michael Oakes, vice president of business development at UltraEx.

Publix Direct, the online grocery service of Publix Supermarkets, uses GIS-enabled logistics software from Descartes to optimize delivery routes. When a customer concludes her order, the software does on-the-fly analysis to determine the most profitable delivery windows given the customer’s location, order size, other scheduled deliveries in that zone, and estimates of driving and service times based on data from Navigation Technologies. Within five to 15 seconds, the customer sees delivery-time options that would be most cost-effective for Publix. Customers choose a 90-minute window, then get a confirmation e-mail giving a 60-minute ETA on the day of the delivery. The software is so accurate that Publix Direct handles more than 7,000 orders a week?and delivers 97 percent of them on time. “The economics of delivery are a make-or-break facet of this business,” says Jim Cossin, director of fulfillment operations for Publix Direct. “This allows us to balance the convenience factor with the customer, offering them as many possible windows as we can, while at the same time creating economically feasible routes in the background.”

Local Politics

Location is germane to virtually every government function, and many municipalities are at the forefront of applying GIS. New York City, for example, is famous for pioneering CompStat, which uses GIS to map criminal activity and police deployment by date, time and location. By making precinct commanders accountable for their policing strategies, it has been a major factor in reducing the city’s violent crime rate by nearly 70 percent in the past decade, says Lawrence Knafo, deputy commissioner of New York City’s Department of IT and Telecom (DOITT). In March, New York expanded its use of GIS to launch its 311 service to handle nonemergency service requests. As the city consolidates 12 call centers into one, calls are now entered into a Siebel CRM system that taps into GIS databases to verify callers’ addresses and cross streets before city workers are dispatched. Operators can also access such location-based information as garbage pickup times and contact information for local elected officials.

Beyond enabling efficient responses to service requests, the system allows the city to aggregate?and map, spatially and temporally?311 data across service sectors. “Geocoding” the calls makes it possible to analyze how well (or poorly) the city is providing services, helping policy-makers decide how best to allocate scarce resources. Knafo thinks that analysis of geocoded 311 and 911 data could potentially reveal previously unnoticed patterns in quality-of-life complaints that tend to precede violent crimes. “We might be able to actually stop crime before it happens,” he says.

“Combinations of data from disparate sources are usually needed to solve and understand complex problems,” says Alan Leidner, assistant commissioner of DOITT and director of the citywide GIS program. “In the past, without the GIS system and GIS databases, [the city had] isolated silos of data that never saw each other, ever. That’s really changing in a big way.” Collecting spatial data in a validated, normalized form enables meaningful combinations of data. For example, the city’s health department used GIS to map cases of West Nile virus, evidence of dead birds and the locations of wetlands to predict where human cases would most likely show up. City officials believe that preemptive spraying in those areas has reduced the incidence of the disease.

The city’s Environmental Systems Research Institute-based emergency management online system (EMOLS) uses GIS and the Web to disseminate location-specific information during snowstorms, transit strikes or other emergencies. Citizens enter an address online and get a map showing the location and whether it’s safe. If it’s in a danger zone, they’ll receive evacuation instructions or information on how to protect themselves. In the days following 9/11, citizens used EMOLS to find out where they could walk and drive as well as the status of power, water, steam and phone service.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s open government initiative also draws on GIS to give citizens Web access to statistics once available only in paper tomes in aggregate form. Now anyone can go to the “My Neighborhood Statistics” section of, type in an address and see (even download for analysis) local stats on many items, including noise complaints, student attendance and murder rates.

“Everything in government is geographic,” says Knafo. “[GIS] is becoming the basis of how we proactively govern.”