Sunday, April 13, 2003

Mobile phone and GPS location

There's a new service in town, called "Zingo" that gets you a taxi when you need one. We're all used to phoning a cab company and telling them where we are and then waiting however long to get a cab. That's not what this is. When you call, it figures out your location (via the cellphone network), contacts the nearest cab and then patches him into you so that you can agree how long he will be and exactly where to meet (I'm not sure what the resolution is, but the taxi that picked me up was no more than 500 yards from where I was when he got the call). For all that, he adds £1.60 to the bill and you're done. Naturally, it relies on you calling with your mobile phone (just in case there was any confusion). A while ago, I talked about some of the more interesting government services using mobile phones that might come about soon. One that piqued my interest was reporting and abandoned car. No different really from the taxi problem - you call a number, the service knows where you are, you speak the type of car, colour and plate into a system that records it and dispatches someone to go and check. Maybe you only check after three people have made the report, or 30 or whatever (like my 888 number stuff). I wondered what other services might work that are location dependent. One is the use of the phone as a proximity device (see my post on Fastchat the other day), perhaps to get access to something. You're allowed access to certain documents, say, only when you're in a given location (maybe the library?) and the phone can handle that; trying to access the data from home wouldn't work. Maybe you're a GP's assistant and you can only look at patient records when you're in the GP's office. As systems increasingly connect to the Internet and both the role that you have, the location that you are in and the time of day become important, this is something that might make a difference. Ultimately it doesn't have to be a phone - it could be a simple tag on your smart card that gives a signal to a GPS satellite, it's just that phones are more prevalent right now. I wondered about that Inland Revenue problem from a few months ago when staff were looking at tax records that they shouldn't look at. Assuming that some staff are and some aren't and maybe all the staff that are supposed to sit in one place (you can tell I have no idea here), then such a technique might work. You might, though, be able to solve all of this with RFID tags attached to the smart card, with the receiver setup in the same room or even on the device that is allowed to work - but they are less flexibly as you ought to be able to dynamically update which locations can access what. Some weeks ago there was a service on the web that, when you put your phone number in, zeroed in on your location. I'm pretty sure that The Register pointed me to it, but I can't find it anymore. Besides, shortly after it launched (and they realised what it meant - no late nights in the pub, I mean office) the location data was randomised unless you opted into the service. Ha, not much chance of that. If you're into some of the theory and issues around this, then there's a useful article for you to read by Sami Levijoki at the Helsinki University of Technology. The Zingo service shows that it's viable. You can call them next time you need a taxi on 087000 700 700.

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