Mobile computing and communications are supposed to be about convenience, immediacy, and location. But while smartphones and tablets may be able to pinpoint location using GPS or even triangulation of cell tower or Wi-Fi signals, GIS is the technology that really makes location valuable. That is one reason why people with GIS degrees should find the booming mobile industry a welcoming one.
The importance of location to mobile is nothing new. Even in the 1990s, pundits spoke of mobile commerce, which was supposed to let companies market to consumers based on the latter’s locations. Drive near a coffee shop and you were supposed to receive a texted coupon for that very business.
Although the attempts were limited at the time, the ability to integrate location with mobile data and services has exploded. Dr. Ruizhi Chen, a professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, is developing “smart geospatial applications.” Location and its context can inform how technology should work.
One example would be the smartphone of someone driving a car automatically responding to inbound calls to indicate when the driver would be able to telephone back. A navigation program like Google Maps can receive alerts of traffic jams and offer alternative routes to the driver. Or the location could change the way surrounding technology works, using wireless communications. On leaving a so-called smarthouse, thermostats could automatically reset the temperature to save money until the owner again comes within some pre-determined radius of the dwelling, rather than depending on the strict instructions of a timer.
Another example is the Android app called Valet. The software recognizes when someone has parked his or her car and makes note of the location. Drivers can get walking directions back to the vehicle and also receive alerts when near the time limit of a parking meter.
On one hand an extension of what GIS has done for decades, making mobile devices location-aware requires some different thinking. Geospatial technology has largely been applied to providing information that has a connection to location. Users might click on a map to get anything from customer demographic breakdowns for an area to terrain, environmental factors, and other aspects that would be important to a crew laying a pipeline.
Location-aware apps are more attuned to what someone needs to do, not what they need to know. The framework of information becomes a way to trigger actions, not as something important in and of itself. Although the approach will require a subtle shift on the part of GIS experts, it opens new career avenues and creates new ways to help people.