The Mobile Frontier in Field Data Collection
The mobile phone business is going nuts. Makers are introducing powerful phones in groves. The sleek and stylish Motorola Razor is almost an antique now. Apple introduced their new iPhone G3 last week and Sprint is introducing the Instinct later this month, complete with streaming TV service. Blackberry is rumored to be coming out with a touch screen phone for Verizon. Nokia, well, they’re in the process of buying Navteq. Navteq map databases power the leading personal navigation devices (PNDs) like Garmin, Magellan and Navigon among others. ‘Nuff said.
2008/2009 is going to be the year(s) of the smartphone, with manufacturers packing more and more into mobile phones. I saw this at the CTIA Wireless 2008 conference in Las Vegas a couple of months ago. I was blown away by the absolutely huge exhibition booths setup by Nokia, Motorola, BlackBerry/Research in Motion, Samsung, LG, etc. Their booths were like small metropolitan areas within the exhibition center.
Okay, this is cool stuff, but how does this affect my business/organization?
Mobile phones are becoming powerful enough to rival some of the most powerful field data collection devices ever made. Certainly orders of magnitude more powerful than those hand-held bricks we used a decade or so ago.
Granted, most of the emphasis we see on the new mobile phones is geared towards the average consumer: texting, streaming video, e-mail, social networking, and web browsing. That’s where the huge volumes are, and that’s what gets the attention of the handset manufacturers and wireless service providers. Our industry is catching the attention of some software developers who are writing software for smartphones that can be very productive for field personnel. I think it is very early in this game and there is a lot of software yet to be released that will help us become more efficient in the field, though.
One software company who has recognized the potential in this area is a little-known company called Telenav out of Sunnyvale, Calif. Last I heard, they had about 400 people and were rated the no. 1 fastest growing company in Silicon Valley by Deloitte for the period 2002 to 2006 in the technology, media, telecommunications, and life sciences category.
You might have used its navigation product. Its flagship GPS navigation software provides the basis for navigation software that Sprint and others sell to their mobile phone customers. It provides many of the same functionality that today’s PNDs provide, such as voice-guided turn-by-turn navigation and points of interest (POI) lookup. The major difference between PNDs and mobile phone applications like Telenav is the up-front cost. PNDs cost from $100 to $1,000, whereas GPS navigation applications for your phone are sold on a subscription basis in the $10 month range. The subscription price in the industry has not settled yet. I think it will end up in the $2 to $3 per month range and/or come bundled with other services like social networking.
To give you an idea of the market reach, Telenav claims their software runs on more than 200 different mobile phones on 12 different wireless carriers in 22 different countries. Competitor Networks in Motion (NIM) claims to have the largest mobile phone subscriber base in North America. They claimed that on the day before Mother’s Day, May 10, it recorded nearly five million server transactions.
Onto Mobile Phone Applications Other Than GPS Navigation
What interests me about Telenav is that unlike most other mobile phone software companies, it is paying a lot of attention to mobile resource management (MRM). In fact, it claims to be the market leader in MRM for mobile phone users. Its flagship product for this market is Telenav Track. Tracking assets and people using GPS is commonplace these days, and there are many, many companies currently offering solutions. Last year, Trimble spent $500 million to acquire @Road, a company specializing in MRM, for example. What differentiates Telenav Track is that all the software runs on mobile phones.
More specifically, I’m really intrigued by the electronic forms aspect of MRM. Essentially, it’s taking a paper form, such as an inspection form, and programming it into an application on a mobile phone. Sound familiar? This is the same concept behind automating field data collection for surveying and construction. Just like 40 years old being the new 30, mobile phones are the new data collectors. Ok, you won’t see them replacing the data collector as you know it today, but I’m seeing a lot more crossover. More traditional field data collectors are now GSM/Wi-Fi capable and more mobile phones are becoming powerful field data collectors.
A case in point: in 2007, the City of New York dedicated 15 inspectors to travel through the city and search for maintenance problems such as potholes, graffiti and excess litter. Traditionally, the city had relied on citizens to report these problem areas, but detailed information and location was often incomplete. The city outfitted the inspectors with BlackBerry mobile phones with custom data collection software installed. The electronic form allows the inspector to record the necessary details while the GPS records the location of the problem area. Unlike traditional data collectors where the data is batched and downloaded later in the day, the data collected on a mobile phone is sent to the server in the office immediately.
The benefits are obvious. The electronic forms control the quality of the data collected by guiding the user through the inspection. The real-time aspect of data collection speeds up the entire process.
Higher quality data + real-time data = better decisions made faster.