By Anand Parthasarathy
March 24, 2023: Knowing where you are can be comforting – especially when you find yourself in strange surroundings. The art of asking a passer-by is dead – thanks to the Global Positioning System (GPS) and the map application on your mobile phone which can provide the answer, anywhere, anytime.
What about the nosey parkers who want to know where everyone else is --or can be found? GPS combined with Geographic Information Systems (GIS), can often provide the answer—a fact that businesses worldwide are exploiting to better their bottom lines.
Many of the challenges faced in business and government are tied to location-based questions.
Without considering geography, we’re missing key information that can aid understanding, says leading GIS player, ESRI. They coined a phrase that has caught on " The Science of Where": a geographic approach to problem-solving, brought to life by modern GIS technology. (useful e-book here)
It has given rise to a new technology: Location Intelligence or LI (also called Spatial Intelligence) which is powered by GIS. It involves adding multiple sets of data, spread out in time and space to a map and it’s called geospatial data and it is critically important to business decisions like these:
- A bank needs to know where to place its ATMs, preferably, where its customers are clustered
- Selecting where to open a new branch of a retail chain depends where its core clientele stays
- Opening a new branch of a chemist? Good to place is close to hospital
- An electric 2-wheeler manufacturer wants to set up charging stations across India. The company commissions a study of which Regional Transport Authority (RTO) offices have registered the maximum number of e-scooters or e-bikes and maps its charging points accordingly.
GIS meets GPS
At the confluence of GIS and GPS lies Location Intelligence -- with two out of three business executives worldwide already using location intelligence to gain a competitive advantage, this is the next big opportunity for startups and established Indian players alike.
At the heart of harnessing geographic knowledge for business benefit lies Geo-coding: transforming the description of a location—such as an address, or the name of a place -- into a location on the earth's surface, usually as a combination of latitude and longitude.
Geo-coding is arguably the most complex process in geospatial location intelligence and every player creates a proprietary algorithm, mostly fuelled by Artificial Intelligence, to provide the most accurate translation of address to geographical coordinates. Sometimes the realization is serendipitous:
Puranika Bhatta, CEO of the Bengaluru-headquartered location technology startup Latlong, was driving with his family in the Karnataka interior, hoping to reach the temple town of Gorur in Hassan district. It was sometime before he realised that the map app on his phone was sending him to another place called Goruru, near the state capital. The problem was both Gorur and Goruru were spelt identically in the Kannada original, confusing the map software.
This led Bhatta and Latlong’s co-founder-CTO Rahul Sindaghatta to ponder how intuitive knowledge or’ ‘tribal’ knowledge could be leveraged to sharpen the accuracy of geo-coding algorithms. Their team at Latlong enhanced their Application Programme Interface (API) for geo-coding with such local knowledge. To ensure that their API worked equally well across 20-plus Indian languages, they took the help of AI4Bharat, an IIT-Madras -mentored initiative to bring AI in Indic languages on par with English, and made use of its APIs to ensure that Indian name strings were accurate.
The result exceeded their expectations. An independent review of sample sets of some 5000 addresses across residences and business; schools, villages, and hospitals by the National Centre for Geodesy at IIT Kanpur showed that Latlong’s position accuracy was better than Google and Microsoft for the same addresses and much better than a leading global vehicle navigation tool. The details can be found in a March 9 blog by Bhatta.
Many of Latlong’s clients have already profited from the enhanced accuracy of its geospatial mapping that it is able to provide after its APIs were improved. “"Geocoding is critical for enterprises to better design demand generation and demand fulfilment processes. From understanding where one's marketing is working, to where to open new stores and service centres -- all depend on good geocoding." Readers can try out the LatLong API here
MapMyIndia, now on ULIP
The leading Indian digital mapping and navigation solutions provider, MapMyIndia has been a trusted brand for three decades. Last year they launched a mobile phone app that allowed Maruti car owners to track their vehicles remotely, to create a ‘geofence’ around the car that alerted them when it was moved unauthorisedly.
Their navigation tool now under the brand, Mappls, was integrated with the Unified Logistics Interface Platform (ULIP), launched by Prime Minister Modi, as part of the 'National Logistics Policy (NLP)' in September 2022. This allowed enterprises to plan and analyse logistics infrastructure and track goods or fleet movement in 2D and 3D.
Mappls’ Made-in-India APIs and software design kits (SDKs) have found a global market in some 230-plus countries or territories, covering large parts of Europe and North America. Says MapMyIndia CEO Rohan Verma: "The Mappls API stack has been established as more accurate, comprehensive, detailed and feature rich than other platforms. We have been building the location data underlying the APIs for the last 28 years from the ground up, based on field validated and professionally captured geospatial data from advanced and accurate sensors & technologies.” Details of the Mappls API can be found here.
From Goa to the world
“We've long believed that location technology is under-utilised. As a result, it is our mission to democratize access to location data and solutions for businesses across all industries”, say IIT Kanpur graduates Amarsh Chaturvedi and Ashwani Rawat. In 2009, they co-founded a location intelligence company, Transerve and based it in Goa.
The company created its own extensive data library, which clients could use for their geographical analysis needs. It also offered a suite of field data collection apps that businesses could use.
Last month Transerve was acquired by the US-based data company, Precisely, with 12,000 customers spread across 100 countries.
“Our suite of data integrity software now includes additional Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) location intelligence capabilities thanks to the acquisition of Transerve”, said Precisely Senior Vice President Clarence Hempfield. Inside the US companies offerings worldwide will now be a chunk of software can be traced back to a 50-member team of Indians.
And that could well be a small pointer to where desi innovation is going these days as it carves out its special space in the science of where.
Illustrations for this article can be found here
This has appeared in Swarajyamag