The Case for Predefined Geofences
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With the recent release of the new iPhone from Apple and the ability of its operating system (iOS 4.0) to more effectively run background apps and services, there have been lots of ideas floated in the blogosphere about cool use cases that leverage this new capability. As a digital mapping company, ideas that center on enhanced location-based services (LBS), like geofencing, are interesting to us.
In many ways, a geofence is simply another name for something that has been around for a long time— a geographic boundary (i.e. polygon) defined by a series of lat/long coordinates. The term geofencing refers to the use of geofences in combination with a location-aware device running apps/services that can send notifications when the person carrying the device crosses a geofence. And of course, Maponics is all about defining geographic areas and delivering them in GIS data products, so we are excited about the new ways in which they can be leveraged and applied in geofencing scenarios.
We see geofencing use cases for all of our GIS data products but I wanted to highlight several here to make the case for how predefined geofences, versus basic radius perimeters, can be more meaningful and useful in geofencing applications.
Predefined Geofences vs. Radius-based Geofences
Most of the scenarios you might be reading about in the tech sites hypothesize about a geofence that is a simple radius around a location, like a store. A radius geofence may be used in push-marketing situations where a store owner hopes you’ll cross her geofence so that her marketing alert will go off and send you a promotional offer to encourage you to visit her store and purchase merchandise. We call these “on the fly” geofences because as a user, you never know when you might randomly cross one or multiple geofences that are generated on the fly—the stores themselves (or their marketing companies) control when users get the notices. As a user, this can be pretty noisy and we guess few users will opt in to such a service.
Contrast this with predefined geofences, for example, neighborhood boundaries. As a user, you could set your preferences to only notify you when there are restaurants offering specials in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Of course, this requires a predefined geofence for Russian Hill. Such a geofence is not a radius –it is a complex polygon, shaped by the streets or natural borders of said neighborhood.
As you’ll see, there are numerous reasons why predefined, polygon-based geofences are going to be superior in many situations.
A sense of location and movement is becoming a fundamental part of social networking. Much of the emphasis has been on tagging updates with location information (read about how Maponics powers place designation for geotagged Tweets) but generating alerts and Tweets based on when your friends enter or leave areas, like choice neighborhoods, can give you a heads up about where the party is headed. Also, using neighborhoods boundaries as geofences enables alerts based on when friends enter the neighborhood where you are hanging out.
Mobile apps and house hunting go well together. Consider the following scenario:
A couple with two kids in elementary school is planning to relocate to a new city for career opportunities. Prior to their house hunting trip, they visit an online real estate web site and generate a short list of properties to visit based on numerous preferences, including price range, number of bedrooms/bathrooms, amenities, etc. within several neighborhoods that they heard have good schools and are kid-friendly. Further, on the real estate web site, they sign up for a geofencing service to be notified on their Smartphone (the house hunters tool of choice) when they enter and exit their target neighborhoods so they can get a sense of locally-recognized neighborhood boundaries and to help orient and direct their house hunting activities.
The couple uses the online real estate site’s mobile app on their iPhone to get directions to the first few properties. While looking at one of the houses, they visit a nearby park with their kids and strike up a conversation with a local mom. They quickly find out that there are several public elementary schools nearby but they are not at all on the same level as far as GreatSchool ratings (also available through the mobile real estate app—and that the attendance areas for the schools cut across several of their target neighborhoods. Armed with this local “intel”, they launch the online real estate app once again and find to their surprise that schools and even school attendance zones are search parameters they can use to further refine their target house list. Similar to the neighborhood alerts they set earlier, they turn on the geofencing service for elementary school attendance zones so that they know as they drive around when they enter and exit the exact boundaries that define which public schools residents attend.
The couple’s location-aware, micro-targeting saved them hours of running around wasting time looking at houses that on the surface may have looked fine but ultimately would not have worked because of the location in relation to desired neighborhoods and schools.
Many parents grapple with striking the right balance when considering technology that can help them monitor their kids’ location and activities. Lots of kids now have GPS-enabled phones, so it is easier than ever to track them--but, exact location tracking is often not an option because kids reject it as too intrusive. With neighborhood-based geofencing, parents can get notifications if and when their kids enter certain neighborhoods—without monitoring their exact location. This might be just enough information for parents to know if they need to touch base or take action but not too much to be considered draconian.
We'd love to hear your cool geofencing ideas—feel free to post comments below.