Of Cows, Wal-Mart, and Disastrous Road Trips

By Joe Francica

So, what do a thoroughly peeved bovine, Sam Walton's legacy, and auto accidents have in common? Well, location technology, of course.

The fact that only 19 of the 81 head of cattle supposedly infected with mad cow disease, also known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), have been located has government officials and consumers crying for better tracking of cattle herds.Wal-Mart, in turn, has put a four-letter word on the map for good: RFID - Radio Frequency Identification.And the seemingly overwhelming news from the Consumer Electronics show a week ago in Las Vegas was that manufacturers will stuff a GPS receiver in just about anything that moves.

Tracking Mad Cow Disease
For the last year or so, mad cow disease has appeared from time to time in headlines but now that it has hit the U.S.and Canada there seems to be a 'mad' panic to know where the very last heifer is located that is carrying this ailment.The U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP) intends to implement the tracking of animal herds in Phase III.This phase will include the use of RFID technology with a target date of July 2005.

There has been much talk about RFID lately.What is it? According to Atmel, an RFID technology provider:

"An RFID system consists of an RFID reader and an RFID tag.Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) involves "contactless" reading and writing of data into an RFID tag's nonvolatile memory through an RF signal.The reader emits an RF signal and data is exchanged when the tag comes in proximity to the reader signal.The RFID tag derives its power from the RF reader signal and does not require a battery or external power source."

Wal-Mart - A Technological Leader Putting Pressure on Suppliers
And then there is Wal-Mart.Wal-Mart has mandated the use of RFID tags on pallets carrying merchandise throughout their distribution warehouses. According to a November 23, 2003 article by InfoWorld, "Wal-Mart has laid out requirements for its suppliers to tag all cartons and pallets with wireless RFID (radio frequency identification) sensors by Jan.1, 2005." Already problems are arising with suppliers.One company, Campbell Soup, has an issue with RFID tags and soup cans.According to eWeek, "The problems with putting radio tags onto Campbell's soup cans are twofold: the soup and the cans.Radio waves bounce off the cans and don't move through liquid well.That means that the Camden, N.J., company has no plans to track individual cans of chunky or thin broths."

But if they did, the implications for marketers would be enormous for micromarketing.As it is, just knowing where merchandise is being delivered could provide yet more information for target marketing in addition to better managing the distribution of Cream of Mushroom soup.According to IDC, the market research firm, retail spending on RFID will surpass $875 Million by 2007.

Retailing on the "Micro-Geography" Level - Mapping the Store and Warehouse Floor
To some readers, it may appear that RFID is a bit far-fetched of the GIS field.But like every other bit of location information that is processed, it begins with a single point.It could be a single point identified by a GPS receiver or the location of an RFID reader.Several years ago in an article in GIS World, I discussed the differentiation of several layers of geographical significance including one called "micro-geography" or an area within a very confined perimeter such as the footprint of a retail store.Others since that time, including Joe Berry and Hal Reid have discussed in subsequent articles the "mapping of the store floor," essentially looking at the traffic patterns made by consumers as they traverse the aisles.

Understanding the location of pallets, soup cans and other units of varying sizes is only one aspect of the supply chain that improves delivery efficiency and provides better customer and field service management.Knowing how, when and from what shelf or end-cap these goods where purchased is part of a growing knowledge base of location-based merchandise planning and analysis.And the systems that will process these data will be combination of known and not-so well-known companies in the location technology space.

Enter the large IT companies.In an article last week in CNet news, writer John Spooner noted that, "A cadre of tech companies, including Intel, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, used this week's National Retail Federation trade show in New York to announced new developments in inventory management for retailers.Chipmaker Intel is working with a consortium, including the Carrefour Group, Metro Group, and Tesco.com, to create a forum called the Electronic Product Code Retail User's Group of Europe.The forum, launched Monday, aims to speed the deployment of technologies such as RFID (radio frequency identification) and EPC (Electronic Product Code), which the group believes are superior for managing inventory in distribution centers, in warehouses and on stores' sales floors." So, now, what seems to be evolving is a chain of IT technology suppliers that provide elements of the supply chain management, but little is understood how the location aspect of these data points will be analyzed.

In some previous editorials, I have discussed supply chain management, logistics, and field service management:

GPS Drives Consumer Location Excitement...and Privacy Issues
In recent weeks, both the North American International Auto Show and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) convened in Detroit and Las Vegas, respectively.Many of the stories and press releases coming out of these events were related to consumer "tech toys" using GPS.Here are just a few of the headlines that Directions locked in on: ...and then other applications are emerging using GPS such as: And finally, wouldn't life be easier if you always knew where your kids were? QUALCOMM's SnapTrack division is offering technology to wireless carriers to keep track of the location of person's carrying a mobile device and be able to notify if that person leaves a certain predefined perimeter. In last week's Queensland Sunday Mail (Australia), an article appeared that discussed "Findafone" from a company called Internav. According to the article, "The service calculates the location based on reports from the three nearest mobile phone base stations to which it is responding.Compared with Global Positioning System tracking services, which can cost up to $1000, Findafone is expected to cost $50 to connect and about 50¢ every time it is used." See also the Wherify press release above.

Wireless NewsFactor published an article recently entitled "Flight Data Recorder for your Car." (see http://wireless.newsfactor.com/story.xhtml?story_title=A_Flight_Data_Recorder_for_Your_Car&story_id=22654&category=gps). It was particularly interesting because of the notification system that contacts both the police and your insurance company.The article states that "A GPS device tracks vehicle location and can interpolate speed, acceleration, and deceleration by calculating changes in location over time.A microprocessor decides when an accident has happened and sends a distress signal over a standard cellular link." Now, what is really intriguing is if the location of the accident was updated in the actuarial systems so that underwriting premiums were constantly being "location-adjusted" factoring in all the accidents at intersections and other trouble spots. Taken to an extreme, the insurance company could almost immediately issue a letter providing you with the details of your claim, the adjuster in the area, and where to have your car repaired (and hopefully not issue a second letter with an automatic adjustment to your insurance premiums.). But are we ready to give up this much personal privacy?

The location data being recorded could also feed a travel alert system for broadcasting alternative route to aid not only motorists but also fleet managers trying to move goods from distribution warehouses (which of course have an RFID system installed that would concurrently adjust the load and manifests of trucks if the blockage were severe.In the event of natural disasters, terrorist attack, or simple road construction, the load balance could almost be instantaneous).Plus, the article notes other benefits. "Automakers recognize that they could identify dangerous defects by mining accident data for telltale signs of component failure.The auto data recorder might even prevent another Ford-Firestone debacle.And it's a relatively simple scheme -- indeed, all the necessary technologies already exist -- with tantalizing promise." IBM and Safety Intelligence Systems (SIS) built this system, announcing their strategic relationship in a press release last November.

Summary
This is all to say that location technology is entering a new phase of possibilities where georeferenced data is being captured by sources that we may not have predicted a few years ago.Certainly, GPS has been on our radarscope for some time.But with selective availability turned off and RFID providing location and tracking within confined perimeters, the potential to map and analyze smaller geographies is now both a possibility and reality.Will this open up new avenues for GIS applications or cause increasing competition with business intelligence solution providers already looking to take location technology deeper into the enterprise?


Published Thursday, January 22nd, 2004

Written by Joe Francica



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