The LI 15 Minute Update: Short Conversations with Geo Technology and Data Providers – Part 2

By Adena Schutzberg

Christian Solomine from WeatherBug represents the new type of data provider serving both the consumer and professional marketplaces with weather services. The company is crafting offerings to serve both types of users. An upcoming service aimed at businesses and government offers time and local-based weather alerts. Thus, a trucker traveling in an area with potential tornadoes would be alerted. When the vehicle leaves the zone, the alert would "disappear." The app includes some "GIS-y" touches - like the ability to turn on and off layers. Potential users include those who travel across wide geographies (transport companies like trucking and bus companies), as well as those who manage facilities in multiple geographies, or those with "high value assets" like hospitals and schools. Consumer LBS tools for weather are changing. While fee-based ones specifically written for phones offer strong interfaces and slick graphics, WAP implementations, accessible for free, are even more popular. An interesting statistic: 80% of services added to mobile phones are downloaded in the first 48 hours. It's rare that users add more until they acquire a new phone. So, those offerings must be compelling on first look!

It's been just about a year since I learned about WeoGeo from CEO Paul Bissett. The journey of this company from startup to launch has had some ups and downs. One "up" was its inclusion in the Amazon Start Up Challenge (the company didn't win, but got lots of PR). One "down" was the realization of the complexity of putting the geodata marketplace online. To explain that complexity Bissett uses an iPod/iTunes analogy. What he and his colleagues needed to build was both the iPod part and the iTunes part, and one more thing: the ability for end users to provide content (new data or new maps) back to the store. We all know how many people use iTunes and how simple it can be. But if you need to add geospatial search, the ability to track metadata, and source data (so data providers whose data are the source for new maps are compensated) and the ability to track incoming data, it gets complex.

Further, delivering large geospatial data (terrabytes, far more than movies!) requires "sneakernet." I confess I'd not heard that word for quite a while, but Bissett explained that it's still needed to deliver large data sets. He further explained that the challenges of delivering data are (gasp!) related to geography. Speeds of data transmission vary from 3.5 Mb/sec east coast to west coast, to a speedy 7-10 Mb/sec on the same coast. So, where the data "live" matters. To ensure timely delivery the company is working to separate the request from the delivery. Further, it's looking to take advantage of new Amazon data farms on the east and west coasts and, down the road, in Europe. Expect some announcements from WeoGeo in the coming months. Bissett also served as a distinguished speaker and it's my sense that those who listened to his presentation were as interested in this vision for redefining the value proposition for geospatial data as they were in his experience with cloud computing. For those who have not been following, Amazon was an early leader (with EC2 and S3) and Google has thrown its hat into the ring with Google App Engine.

I've known of Seisan for a few years; I've even done some consulting for the firm, based in Lancaster, PA. But, I didn't really know the company's story. Chuck Durham explained that the company started out developing Web solutions working with technologies like the AS400. In 1996, the company was approached to provide a dealer locator app for Case New Holland. For those not in farming or construction, it's John Deere's biggest competitor. Deere had an app built on top of Vicinity (now owned by Microsoft), so Durham and his colleagues went with a new player called Geosystems that had a product called MapQuest. The connection was easy since that company was just down the road. That work got the team into some internal MapQuest work, including developing a product called MapWire to support maps for the Associated Press. It didn't get off the ground, but Seisan became the "go to" consultant for B2B projects built on the MapQuest platform. In addition to business apps, Seisan also used its geographic expertise to support security applications, such as tracking hackers. What really put Seisan on the map was an app called Shazou, used to track potential phishing scams. A reporter noted it in the Wall Street Journal and drove a lot of interest.

I sat down with David Cole of MapQuest to check in on that generally quiet company. Why is the company quiet? It's still the #1 hit mapping site, and all the buzz associated with mapping portals helps raise all boats, including MapQuest's. The company respects that its customer base is somewhat "old school." For now, the company is exploring how best to monetize and support the mobile market. A few add-ons include the ability to send MapQuest directions to OnStar or Garmin devices. Further enhancements for existing users focus on "more data," including gas prices (written by Seisan) and traffic data (from Inrix). For now MapQuest gets most of its revenue from advertising and the rest from its B2B apps. The ratio is about 4 or 5:1 per Cole. The free API has been well received; it's one of just a few APIs to use Flash. Further, MapQuest offers something called Fujax, which allows developers to write in JavaScript and have the app work in Flash.

I was very excited when I learned Quova was attending and exhibiting at our event. I wrote about Quova in early issues of GIS Monitor. The company, now with about 70 employees, does the same thing now it did then: it locates devices based on their IP addresses. Now, that may not sound sexy or exciting, but as Kerry Langstaff, vice president of marketing, explained, it makes for some interesting use cases. The state of New Jersey is a client; it uses the company's database to determine if those asking for access to its resources are, in fact, in New Jersey. If so, you're in; if not, you'll need a library card ID to get in. Yes, that's right, if you travel to New Jersey, you too can use its libraries, legally. Other states using Quova for library access include Connecticut, Kansas and Wisconsin.

So, what's the big deal about maintaining a database of which IP address connects to which geography? First, that database changes 8% (of some 1.6 billion addresses) per week. Second, lots of IP addresses are not static (mine, for example, is assigned each time I log on to my service provider). Third, different countries assign addresses differently. So, Quova runs many automated tools to get a decent "map" and then depends on network geography analysts to spot check and fill in the blanks. These are literally regional experts in how IP addresses work in different parts of the world. All that work pays off: Quova can brag about a 99.9% rate on getting the country right and 96.3% on the state/province. Those percentages are vetted by Price Waterhouse, providing users extra confidence.

Per Langstaff, Quova has two competitors, MaxMind and Digital Envoy. Quova delivers quite a bit of information to clients who use the service. For each IP address sent to its service, the client can get back: country, state, city, lat/long, ZIP Code, area code, time zone, language, how they are connected and a confidence level of the location. The recipient can then write whatever business rules it wants based on the information. So, if you are a retailer and don't want to deal with anyone in Nigeria, you can either hide products from them or return a message stating essentially, "We don't do business in that part of the world." The IP location is often used to try to prevent fraud, such as high-end jewelry being sent to an address not in sync with that of a credit card. Many times such disconnects are sent for further review, based on other factors, before being approved or denied. Quova's information is used to ensure compliance in many situations - including where online gambling is legal (if you don't comply you can be shut down), or where sports can and can't be shown (basically implementing Web blackouts akin to TV blackouts). Such uses make up about 20% of company revenue, with advertising (location-based ads!) providing 35% and fraud prevention another 35% or so.

Here are a few other interesting tidbits about Quova. Ninety-five percent of all Web searches (no matter the engine) are geolocated by its service. The company partners with Mexens to locate mobile IP addresses. That company pays regular folks (Langstaff is one) to run an app on their cell phones to map Wi-Fi access points and cell towers. That way, it, too, can keep up with churn! Finally, Quova powers Visit that newspaper site and you'll get news for your geography, based on your IP address.

Published Saturday, May 10th, 2008

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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