Where Are You?

Scooby Doo: Where Are You?
If your business includes mobile workers - sales-people, consultants, drivers or that sort of thing - odds are somebody, somewhere in your company probably has to ask that question several times a day: "Where are you?"

Here's a scenario: you and one of your mobile workers are headed to a meeting at a client's premises first thing in the morning. You get there on time, but your colleague hasn't arrived yet. The meeting is starting, but there's still no sign of him. What do you do? 

What most people would do is pick up the phone and ask "Where are you?" But think about that for a sec. Your colleague is likely well aware that he's late for the meeting. He's probably frantically dealing with traffic, trying to avoid getting traffic fines, and grasping to the only remaining thread of his last frayed nerve. Do you really want to add to his stress by making him answer his phone in traffic, distracting him, and possibly even causing an accident?

No, of course you don't. But you also need to know what's happening so you can deal with the client in his absence. 

Here's another scenario: You've been CC'd on an urgent email to one of your staff regarding a crisis at one of your clients' offices. You've seen her response to the mail indicating that she's on her way. This is an important client, and you'd like to know when she arrives so you can breathe a little easier. 

What most people would do is insist that she call you as soon as she gets there. But then you don't really want to break her stride... after all, she has important work to do there. Do you really need to disrupt her while she's busy placating a distraught client? But you need the info!

Fortunately there are some tools that can help us in these sorts of situations, and they don't require tapping into access control systems or installing GPS trackers in your employees' cars. They are what we call "Location-based Social Networking Tools".

You may recognise the term "social networking" as being the sort of thing that includes Facebook and Twitter. Location-based social networking tools fall into that category too, but as the name suggests, they're all about three things: location, location and location.

In broad terms, there are two different kinds of these tools: live location transmission and check-in based services. Let's take a look at an example of each.

Live Location Transmission Services

As the name suggests, this is a service that transmits the location of the person over the Internet, either in real-time or pretty close to it. The most popular of these services is Google Latitude.

Google Latitude
Latitude works through Google Maps for Mobile which runs on the user's smartphone. It uses a combination of GPS and network triangulation to figure out approximately where the phone is, and therefore where the person is. It then sends periodic updates back to the Latitude server over the Internet, which then forwards that information to the user's contact list.

If you and everyone on your team were using Latitude, you would be able, at a glance, to see where each of them are (or were as recently as a few minutes ago, depending on when the server last updated their position), laid out on a Google Map either on your own smartphone, or on the Latitude website.

This would be perfect for that first scenario: you're sitting in the client's meeting room waiting for your colleague. Wondering where he is, you whip out your smartphone and open Google Maps. You can now see that 11 minutes ago he was on or near the highway, roughly half-way between his home and the client's office. You can safely assume he probably won't be there for a while still, so you can suggest to the client that you start the meeting without him.

A new added feature of Latitude is real-time updates. If both you and he are using Android smartphones, you can set Latitude to give you minute-by-minute updates of his location for a short duration. This feature will probably be available on other smartphones in the near future too.

Check-in Based Services

These require a little more effort from the user than the other kind: when the user arrives at a place, she has to "check in", or inform the service that she's actually arrived. That information is then relayed via the service to her contacts. The biggest name in check-in based services is Foursquare.

Like Latitude, Foursquare is designed to run on smartphones. Although any mobile device with a web browser can use it. To check in, the user opens up the Foursquare app on their smartphone and waits for it to load a list of nearby venues (like Latitude, Foursquare knows where the phone is, more-or-less). The user then selects the relevant venue (the client's office, for example) and clicks the "check-in" button. Everyone on her contact list can now see that she's checked in there.

If you're one of her Foursquare friends, you can set your own Foursquare app to alert you when she checks in. Alternatively you can watch her Foursquare profile page on the Foursquare website, or you can plug your own Foursquare account into a Twitter client like TweetDeck or Hootsuite.

If you already use Facebook or Twitter, you can connect up your accounts and have your Foursquare check-ins transmitted to those other services too.

Things to Consider

As with most things, there are a few caveats here.

Privacy: some people aren't comfortable with the idea of their phone telling the Internet where they are. They find it creepy, and words like "Big Brother" come to mind. Before implementing a location-based tool as a policy, it's probably a good idea to discuss it with your team first. Also, look into the privacy policy of the tool in question so you can answer your team's questions. It might even be a good idea to try it yourself for a while with your friends and family so you can get a feel for it, and encourage your team to do the same.

As with most social networking tools, while they may have business applications, they are designed for personal use. Try to respect your team's privacy, and keep an open mind about what you see on their profiles. 

Precision and accuracy: Given that both of these services (and the vast majority of others like them, including Facebook Places and The Grid) are free of charge, you won't be able to get a 100% guarantee. Latitude is sometimes imprecise, showing a location that isn't actually where the user is, or having a large margin for error (indicated by a blue circle on your map). Foursquare, being a relatively small company, sometimes gets inundated and their service has to be taken offline for a couple of hours here or there.

If you're going to be using these tools, keep in mind that they shouldn't be used as anything more than a convenience. They're not (yet) reliable enough to use as evidence for things like KPIs.

Cost: Although these services are free to use, they both require transmission of data over the Internet, which can have a cost. If you aren't already, it would probably be a good idea to offer some kind of subsidy towards your team's cellphone bill to compensate for it.

I've used both of these services for personal and business reasons for quite some time, and I find them very useful. Another feature of both tools is that they keep a history you can refer back to later - particularly handy when filling in timesheets and that sort of thing. Even if you're not likely to use them for your team or mobile workers, I'd recommend checking them out for yourself, just for the fun of it!

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