2006 April 06

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Editor's Introduction

This week I report on two interesting projects. First, the purchase by the city of Chula Vista, California, of two products from Accela, Inc. to expand its GIS capabilities and improve its emergency response and recovery activities following disasters. Second, a new positioning technology by Skyhook Wireless that uses wireless Internet access points as radio beacons. Plus, my usual round-up of news from press releases.

This week and for the rest of the month I am in Italy (in Milan, Turin, Genoa, Pisa, Rome, Naples, Venice, and several smaller places). Over the next few weeks I will report on some of my conversations with GIS technicians and managers here.


Skyhook Wireless Launches Wireless Position System

Some positioning systems make use of natural objects or phenomena; for example, celestial navigation uses the stars, compasses use Earth's magnetic field, and ancient mariners relied on trade winds. Other positioning systems rely on facilities or networks built for the purpose; for example, lighthouses, buoys, or Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. Yet a third way is to exploit devices that were built and deployed for other purposes. That is what Skyhook Wireless is demonstrating, by implementing what it calls a WiFi positioning system (WPS). This new technique relies on the growing popularity, in U.S. urban areas, of wireless Internet access points and uses them as signals of opportunity to determine the position of mobile WiFi-enabled devices, such as laptop computers, PDAs, and cell phones.

In other words, WPS is exactly the reverse of Loran, RDF, and other radio positioning systems. The latter are based on building a small number of powerful, costly, and publicly operated radio beacons specifically for navigation purposes and on intentionally making their position, signal frequencies, and other characteristics known. WPS, by contrast, is being built by using WiFi receivers to identify, and GPS receivers to geo-locate, large numbers of very low power, very cheap, and privately operated transmitters that were intended for entirely different purposes.

Besides assembling the relevant hardware and writing the software, the technique requires systematically driving down each street in an urban area; mapping the position, signal strength, and MAC address of all the active WiFi access points; and storing this data in a huge database. Skyhook Wireless has done this, it claims, for areas containing about 50 percent of the U.S. population and plans to reach 70 to 80 percent by the end of this year. The system then uses triangulation (not trilateration, as used by GPS) to return the latitude and longitude of a device that reports — using a wireline, wireless, or cellular Internet connection — the MAC addresses of the wireless routers it detects and the strengths of their signals. Finally, Loki, a program that Skyhook Wireless wrote and has made freely available for download, displays the device's position on a familiar Google map and uses that position to find local information — such as traffic, weather, and movies.

Last week in Boston I visited the offices of Skyhook Wireless and discussed the company's technology and business plan with Jed Rice, VP of Market Development, Steve Solari, VP of Operations, and Dr. Farshid Alizadeh-Shabdiz, VP of Research.

Skyhook Wireless, Rice told me, was co-founded by Ted Morgan and Mike Shean, who had the idea of exploiting the growing "natural infrastructure" of WiFi access points. "We began to realize," Rice says, "that those access points are mini radio beacons and that probably 90 percent of them stay fixed over a 12 month period." In downtown Chicago alone, he claims, there are 280,000 of them and about 15,000 in Boston's Back Bay. "Generally, in any urban or suburban area, you will hear anywhere between three and 15 networks from any one point and 95 percent of the time we hear at least two." Their typical range is about 100 feet and they all broadcast their MAC address — which is used by receivers to connect to them and by WPS as a unique identifier.

As location-based services (LBS) grow in popularity, Rice argues, this technique complements GPS receivers, which need their own power supply, operate poorly in "urban canyons" and not at all wherever they lack an unobstructed view of the sky, and are relatively expensive — though, he admits, less and less so. Therefore, Skyhook Wireless searched for a way to enhance the future of LBS by location-enabling existing devices using only additional software. "By mapping the locations [of WiFi routers], taking very common platforms, such as Windows XP, the WiFi card that's already in many devices, and a piece of software that knows how to talk to it," Rice explains, "we can create something that makes these devices location-aware. All we do is use WiFi access points and software to publish latitude and longitude for use by other services. Our technology works very well indoors and in urban areas. We don't have the urban canyon and interrupted signal problems that you have with GPS. So, by focusing on metro areas, we think that we can very effectively location-enable devices that are where [most] people are — in their offices, homes, and cars."

Right now, the company has about 150 drivers on contract to collect data on every single street in urban areas, using off-the-shelf hardware components — such as HP Ipaqs. The company's IP consists of the software and methodology it developed to manage this large and complex operation, including managing the drivers and collecting, pre- processing, post-processing, and updating the data. "We will get 360 degree coverage of any wireless access point," says Rice, "and generally pick up a couple of dozen readings about it. By the end of the year we will have driven 1.5 million miles." The system then assigns a confidence factor to the location of every access point it maps. The company aims for an accuracy of 20 to 50 meters.

Have you thought of automating this process, I asked Rice, by mounting your collection equipment on, say, taxis or FedEx trucks? "The first push for Skyhook was actually to do just that," he told me. "We tried it with police cars, taxi cabs, and delivery vehicles. The problem is that they follow a fairly standardized route. So, you get "arterial bias:" a taxi cab will be on a main road, shoot out of a main road, then get back to a main road."

The company begins its coverage of an area by doing a primary data collection, which it uses to create a base map; it then runs a secondary data collection, using other methodologies, to correct mistakes and pick up changes. According to Rice, Skyhook Wireless has already collected the locations of five million access points and is now adding 15,000 a day. The data collection software has a self-learning component, Rice explains, so that it improves with use. "After we do the initial baseline," Rice says, "every user contributes to the network. We are not going to have to drive the streets all the time. Boston, being a very transient city because of college students, is a great testing ground for us." Additionally, he explains, the very narrow streets and tall buildings of the city's Chinatown are a perfect place for testing WPS.

Whose street maps do you use? "We have a partnership with TeleAtlas, so we are doing some interesting things with them around points of interest (POIs); they may help us expand in Europe when we start doing data collection over there."

Who are you are targeting as end users? "We are looking for folks who need latitude and longitude where GPS may not meet their requirements, for any number of reasons. One may be that a GPS receiver may not be native to their device or application. A perfect example of that is voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP), such as a Skype or Vonage phones, which do not have GPS receivers but do have Internet connectivity. We're spending a lot of time with Intrado and TCS, both partners of ours, and the voice carriers themselves, to be able to create E911 compatibility to add location to wireless voice calls."

Two of the principal investors in the company are Intel, which is working on its 2007 low-power portable chip, and Nokia, which is already rolling out WiFi-enabled devices without any wireless or cellular connection. Rice declined to mention other partners but did tell me that his company "just did a proof of concept with one of the big GPS chip manufacturers" that is "looking at rolling out multi-signal location technologies."

In order to demonstrate WPS technology and make it available across a wide range of hardware platforms and operating systems, Skyhook Wireless created Loki as a thin client that takes advantage of the WPS platform. The company announced it this week at CTIA and is a finalist for the Navtech LBS challenge. The winners were announced today at about 3:00 PM PST (i.e., after I put this issue to bed).

Loki indicates the confidence level for a location with a three-color code: green when it is high, yellow when it is shaky, and red when it has no clue. When the confidence level is below a threshold, it defaults to an IP address, which has extremely low accuracy; according to Rice, "95 percent of the time it will place you in the right state."

Loki also allows users to tune their location. "So," says Rice, "if I do come up with an IP address, or even if I find that I am off by a block, I can go in there and manually put in my address." This has two advantages: first, the next time that user is in the same location the system will recognize it; second, it allows the user to take advantage of the integration between Loki and other online services, such as Fandango. Whenever enough users within range of the same WiFi routers register a certain location, Skyhook Wireless' servers will accept that information as correct and enter it into the database.

The company has taken a lot of publicly available, location-sensitive Web content and integrated it into a set of channels. "By simply clicking a button," says Rice, "I am now going to be able to see all movies playing within walking distance of me on the Fandango website." Some websites will accept lat-long as input, while other ones require Skyhook Wireless to geocode addresses or assign them a zip code, city, or street address.

Product development for Loki began around the end of October. Following focus groups in December and January, the product first became available as an alpha test to about 300 users, then as a downloadable beta starting about two weeks ago. "We are up to several thousand users now," Rice told me.

One way in which Loki might make money is by providing usage information to advertisers. "We are not going to track people," Rice assured me. However marketers, he explains, rely heavily on the psychographic, demographic, and financial profile people who live in certain areas. Now Loki can tell them in real time that a certain number of people are on line in a certain area at a certain time. Then, Rice speculates, Skyhook Wireless could sell space on Loki to deliver ads targeted to different users, depending on their location and the time of day. "We think that it is probably 12 months away before the market is ready for that."

According to Solari, building the database was "a monumental effort." In addition to its in-house staff, Skyhook Wireless utilized offshore development, as well as consultants and contractors.

Are you feeding back to TeleAtlas the changes that you find? "There's a potential for that, certainly," Solari told me. "In covering every single street there's a lot we learn. Long term, we certainly plan to expand what these drivers are doing."

What if, I asked Dr. Alizadeh-Shabdiz, after you've made this huge investment, something on which you are relying changes? "Basically, what we are doing is finding the signature of these micro radio transmitters," he told me. "If new technology comes, we will scan and find the radio signatures of those [devices]."

Would it make sense for a city to place a radio beacon at every corner? "They are doing that now. New York City did it. Boston is planning to do that too."

Is there anything that router manufacturers could do that would help WPS? "That's a good question. If I could get closer to the RF, I could definitely do more."

Accela, Inc. Expands City's GIS Capabilities

The city of Chula Vista, California, has selected two products from Accela, Inc. to expand its GIS capabilities and improve its emergency response and recovery activities following disasters — such as earthquakes, floods, or fires. Accela Wireless enables the City to conduct mobile inspections to streamline permit approvals. Inspectors in the Planning & Building Department will shift daily tasks from the office to the field using portable devices — such as laptops and PDAs — that allow them to remotely access permit-related data. Accela GIS will allow users to pull information from the City's GIS database to automate map analysis and speed up the review process. Working together with Accela Automation, these two components will allow Chula Vista's public agencies to create an emergency response solution that will allow them to assess damage from disasters in real time and create a recovery plan.

Accela is a provider of government enterprise software solutions that allow agencies to automate workflow, track information, and manage data from a centralized database. The company was created in 1999 from the three-way merger of Sierra Computer Systems Inc. (founded in 1979), OpenData Systems, and Accela Corporation. In May 2001, Accela acquired Tidemark Solutions and then merged with Kiva Systems, Inc. in August of that same year. In December 2002 it acquired the Sussex Business Systems product line.

I discussed Accela's Chula Vista contract with Andrew D'Ottavio, who joined Accela in April and serves as the product manager for several of the company's add-on products — including Accela GIS, Accela IVR, and Accela Wireless. Prior to joining Accela, he served as a Systems Analyst focusing on GIS applications and Accela product administration for the City of Petaluma, California.

Accela's core competence is land permitting and management and its products are built on top of ESRI's ArcIMS. In recent years, D'Ottavio told me, the company has been progressively incorporating into its products new features and functions that enhance their spatial analysis capability. The key, he explains, is bi-directional communication between the field applications and existing GIS data sets — such as parcels, addresses, street centerlines, etc. Chula Vista had been an Accela parcel and land management customer for several years prior to deciding to expand its GIS functionality. "They have data layers and the standard ESRI suite of products," D'Ottavio told me, "but this was not communicating with their permitting solutions database."

Accela, which is not hardware-dependent and works on all industry-standard machines, integrates its field data collection software with its land permitting and management system, using the same map display for both. Accela GIS leverages the ArcIMS toolset, expands it, and ties it to the land permitting and management system — allowing users to, for example, run a buffer and display all of the properties valued between two different dollar amounts and within a certain range of a location. AccelaAutomation, which is for land management, is Accela's core product. It includes task-specific modules — for permitting, licensing, management, and public health and safety. For example, D'Ottavio told me, you can use it to track all permits — from those for construction to those for filming movies.

The new system will help Chula Vista city staff route information from one department to another, send notifications to the parties responsible for certain operations, and obtain their sign off on proposals and completed tasks. Staff, according to D'Ottavio, can ask, for example, for all open building permits and the system will return data that they can use as a GIS layer, whether they are in the office or in the field. They can then export it as tabular data and send out notifications by e-mail.

Agency field staff, D'Ottavio explains, can use the system for field data collection, using standard and configurable forms for different events — such as earthquakes, flooding, or landslides. Data collected in the course of both normal and emergency response update the database in real time, using the wireless capability. That way, for example, both public works crews digging a trench and haz-mat crews responding to a chemical spill have access to the latest data without any lag time. If the wireless network is down, users can store the data on their mobile devices and then synchronize it the next time that they are at a hotspot or can plug into the system by wire. According to D'Ottavio, all other comparable emergency response / planning / GIS systems require connectivity to work and none of them can operate in this "store & forward" mode.

"In New Orleans," D'Ottavio told me, "we were able to track inspections in real-time. We inspected 128,000 structures in the ten weeks with an average of 35 inspectors. The chief building official said that it would have taken eight to ten months to do the same work using pen and paper."

What's coming down the pike? Accela, D'Ottavio told me, is doing some new R&D with ESRI to further expand its products ability to handle spatial analysis. The company expects to complete a major software release in the next six to ten months, which will use ArcGIS server.

News Briefs

Please note: I have culled the following news items from press releases and have not independently verified them.


The City of Newark, New Jersey, will be adding technology from Pictometry International Corp., a provider of digital, aerial oblique imagery and measuring software, as part of city's enterprise-wide GIS, called NEWGIN (Newark's Geographic Information Network), which includes ESRI's ArcSDE and ArcIMS applications as well as Orion Technology's OnPoint software.

Pictometry technology will also be incorporated into the city's Emergency Preparedness Information Network (EPINet), a program initiated by the State of New Jersey that enables the sharing and deployment of GIS data to multiple agencies at local and state levels for homeland security applications. NEWGIN enables the city to take critical data used in the day to day decision making process of government and display it against a geo-coded map of the city.

Tensing USA has become a Trimble Authorized Mapping & GIS Business Partner. As such, Tensing may offer a wide variety of services from customer application software development to fully integrated software/hardware solutions that incorporate the Trimble Mapping & GIS product lines.

Tensing recently introduced its SPY Mobile GIS, a platform-independent product that runs on any Windows-driven device utilizing the Microsoft .NET Framework or .NET Compact Framework. As a Trimble Business Partner, Tensing can develop SPY .NET solutions that allow customers to take digital data from any corporate GIS and display it on the Trimble GeoExplorer or Trimble Recon series of integrated, handheld mobile GIS mapping devices. Tensing SPY Mobile GIS allows field staff to review, analyze and change (or update) existing data in the field. It extends GIS capabilities to crews in the field and gives them access to entire mapping systems on laptop, pen, tablet computers and PDA's. Data is provided to the field by extracting data from any corporate GIS database via a fast one-to-one conversion tool that simplifies the presentation of the data. Tensing SPY Mobile GIS now allows the customer to define the same application regardless of hardware platform.

Tensing SPY Mobile is one of four software packages included in the Tensing SPY .NET suite built on the core SPY technology. Tensing created this suite specifically for end users who do not need a full-blown GIS but require fast-performing field tools and hardware independence. Other products in the suite include Tensing SPY Development Suite, Tensing Live Connect, and Tensing Gateway.

United Power one of the fastest growing electric cooperatives in the United States, has implemented the GO! Sync (Redline) mapping application to deliver enterprise GIS data to field workers across its service area. Located in Brighton, Colorado, the cooperative serves more than 60.000 customers over 16 cities located across an area of 900 square miles along the north central range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

Recognizing the considerable productivity gains that can be achieved by deploying a Mobile GIS, United Power selected the Geospatial Solutions Division of Tadpole Technology Group to supply software that would improve workflow efficiencies by introducing fit for purpose GIS into the field operations. By leveraging ESRI's ArcGIS Engine software, GO! Sync (Redline) enables crews to view, verify and capture geospatial information on tablets or laptops with minimal to no training.

In addition to offering standard mapping tools and sketching functionality, GO! Sync (Redline) provides a framework within which an organization can begin to deploy a mobile GIS system designed specifically for its own operational and technical environment. This has allowed United Power to add its own custom tools, such as a grid locator and deploy and manage the application over a range of network connections as the system evolves.


GeoSpatial Experts has introduced Version 4.0 of its GPS-Photo Link digital image mapping software. This version allows users to display their digital photographs in the Google Earth environment.

GPS-Photo Link is a digital image mapping software that automatically links digital photographic images to GPS location data in the GIS environment. GPS-Photo Link creates Web pages in which the watermarked photographs are integrated with satellite imagery, street maps, or other GIS-based mapping layer. The Ricoh edition of GPS-Photo Link provides additional features for users of the Ricoh GPS-enabled camera, including the ability to use a laser rangefinder to record the distance to an object in a photo.

New functionality enables users to display their photo locations as icons in a Google Earth map layer and add an arrow indicating the direction in which the photo was taken. This direction information can be input manually or extracted automatically by GPS-Photo Link from the Ricoh digital camera. The photo mapping software can also determine the zoom angle of the Ricoh camera lens during photo acquisition and display the field of view as a two-dimensional triangle or three-dimensional cone in the 2D or 3D Google Earth map.

Other upgrades in GPS-Photo Link 4.0 include the following: GPX File Format Support (GPX), which enables users to interface with a greater variety of programs, including Garmin's MapSource for GPS data input and photo viewing; redesigned watermark screen, which gives user more options for adding key information to photos and deciding where to place the watermarks; user logos can now be added to watermarked photos; photos can be processed in any directory on the user's computer; GPS track logs can be represented in Google or MapSource to display the sequence in which digital photos were acquired; and users can select from many icons (including rotated arrows) to portray photo locations on the automatically generated Web pages.

DeLorme USA 6.0. It features more than 290,000 newly added roads; new support for .gpx, .upt, .log and geocaching.com's .loc file formats; BLM lands, available via free download at big-picture viewing levels; Wildlife Management Units for hunting, also via free download, for numerous states; updated national scenic, historic, and forest trails; the most current elevation and land cover detail from the USGS; up-to-date commercial campground information; EZ-Nav toolbar, which locates the most frequently-used functions at the top of the screen; recreation contact information for national trails and federal lands; MapShare, which lets you share maps, elevation profiles, routes, and directions via the Web; and an address book in which to store locations and new print layout tools. The 3-D has been completely overhauled and now allows users to fly over and scout the terrain for large areas.

RSI, a wholly owned subsidiary of ITT Industries, Inc. is releasing an imagery analysis tool to the ENVI remote sensing exploitation product line, the ENVI Spatial Feature Extraction Module. This new add-on module to ENVI will automate the process of extracting specific features in high-resolution panchromatic and multi-spectral images. The ENVI Spatial Feature Extraction Module will provide a suite of tools for extracting linear and area-based features from imagery using both spatial and spectral information. Currently analysts who need to identify occurrences of features in images, such as aircraft, roads, and buildings, must find features manually by analyzing an image pixel by pixel, which is both a time consuming and costly process.

The ENVI Spatial Feature Extraction Module has a host of applications, particularly in defense, intelligence and GIS. Defense and intelligence analysts will use feature extraction capabilities for mission and intelligence operations. Strategic implementations include locating roads, buildings and vehicles, identifying potential aircraft landing strips in forested areas, and locating camp areas. GIS analysts and imagery scientists will use the module to locate water bodies, wetlands, forests or grasslands for development planning and utility placement, as well as to identify areas of deforestation, updating road maps, creating map lake boundaries and monitoring water level changes.


The Geospatial Information & Technology Association (GITA) has added a job fair to its Annual Conference 29, slated for April 23-26, in Tampa, Florida. GITA's goal is to give veteran GIS professionals as well as newcomers to the field a place to meet with recruiters from a variety of geospatial companies. There is no admission fee for job seekers to attend this one-day event, which will be held on Tuesday, April 25.

The list of companies exhibiting at the job fair is growing daily, and as of March 30 includes: Accenture, ESRI, GE Energy, Hitachi Software Engineering America, Ltd., Intergraph Corporation, MapFrame, and Miner & Miner, a Telvent company. The conference will also feature 70 technical paper presentations, seminars, panel discussions, user forums, a keynote presentation, networking socials, a poster session, and a 100,000-square-foot product and services exhibition.


MapInfo Corporation, a provider of location intelligence solutions, has appointed Reid Hislop as vice president of corporate marketing. In this capacity, Hislop will lead the company's corporate marketing team and direct the company's branding efforts. Mr. Hislop will work directly with MapInfo's executive team to grow and strengthen the company's overall marketing strategy.

Mr. Hislop joins MapInfo from McData Corporation, a storage networking solutions and storage area networks provider, where he served as Vice President of Corporate Marketing. In this role, Hislop spearheaded global public relations and marketing communications activities, designed campaigns across key verticals, and increased market share with the launch of new global branding, market positioning and messaging. Prior to McData, he served as Vice President of Marketing for eSoft, Inc., an internet security solutions provider, where he was responsible for all aspects product management, business development, corporate marketing, product marketing and channel development.

Hislop has also held marketing positions at several technology companies, including i2 Technologies, Inc., Rational Software Corporation, Uniplex Integration Systems, Inc., NBI, Inc. and Xerox.


The University of Idaho has received a $250,000 gift from Tom and Teita Reveley to help establish a University of Idaho Remote Sensing and Spatial Ecology Complex, to be located in the College of Natural Resources.

The Reveleys' commitment will help UI researchers and educators integrate a package of sensor technologies and planning processes to serve a wide variety of scientific disciplines, degree programs and professional training courses.

Airborne 1 Corporation, a provider of LiDAR services, software, and training, has taken delivery of an Optech ALTM 3100 Enhanced Accuracy (EA) sensor. The new sensor will be the latest addition to the company's collection of airborne laser mapping systems and LiDAR assets. Following a set of diagnostic tests, the ALTM 3100EA sensor will join Airborne 1's fleet and become available for upcoming assignments throughout North America and abroad.

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