Today’s post is brought to you by Radar, the location platform for mobile apps. Founded in 2016, Radar helps companies use location data to build better products.
Welcome, one and all, to what should be a fun little tech-based post. Like many people, I find technology interesting. The way we’ve developed different systems over the years, and how we’ve gone on to apply these to modern life is at times fascinating, especially when it comes to things that you either didn’t know were even there to begin with or weren’t aware could be used in the way they are. It’s for this reason that I like today’s subject, because it covers something that, although I knew it existed, I hadn’t really considered in terms of how it’s used: Geofencing.
So, let’s start with a definition of the term. A geofence is a predefined area, within which electronic devices are monitored. This area is completely virtual; it requires no additional hardware to be installed by the user, and instead relies on data gathered from cellular/mobile phone towers, Wi-Fi data, and to a degree, GPS data. The general idea is to allow those who have set up the geofence to gain some insight into who breaches the perimeters of the fence, who sticks around, and who leaves.
The chances are, you’ve already been involved with this, at least insofar as registering perimeters goes. When you have your Wi-Fi switched on, your mobile device will send out frequent searches for new hotspots, and when one of these is found, it will most likely power on your GPS in the background and report the location to your device provider (such as Apple, Google, and so on). This allows different businesses to build up a picture of what sort of services can be offered, and where.
Now, if you weren’t aware of this at all, that probably sounds a little creepy. The thing is though, there a lot of benefits to geofencing, one of which you may have already experienced: push-notifications. Have you ever signed up to an app-based loyalty scheme for example? If so, there’s a good chance that your terms and conditions feature at least one point about the use of geofencing. This is because, when you agree to allow push-notifications, the idea is to allow the app to get them to you in a timely fashion.
So, say you’re in your local shopping mall, and you get a push notification offering a discount at a coffee shop. You then realise that there’s a branch of said chain in that very mall, and decide, ‘why not go for a drink?’ This isn’t down to lucky timing. The chances are that the company will have a geofence set up around the mall, meaning that they knew when you arrived, and knew that you weren’t simply passing through. But it won’t necessarily stop there. Let’s assume that you’re a registered app user and scanning a QR code within the app whenever you make a purchase earns you loyalty points. This will mean that the coffee shop will also have access to your purchase history. Did the discount they offered in the push notification relate to one of your frequent purchases? That’s because most businesses will use geofencing in conjunction with multiple promotions. Sure, broad brush approaches have their place too, but if you’re in a position to drill down to more detailed targeting, you’re likely to do it. There is no reason to offer cheap cappuccino to someone who doesn’t drink it when you can entice them better with 10% off their favourite hot chocolate, after all.
If we continue down the route of retail, in this case with our fictional coffee shop, they may also set up geofences around their competitors. This would allow them to see when a customer goes to another coffee shop, and maybe give them a nudge to come back. This will also allow them to see when you simply aren’t visiting coffee shops in the mall and give them an opportunity to throw a bone your way to regain your custom. That’s right, Big Brother may not always be watching, but your favourite stores are!
Of course, we don’t all run businesses that would benefit from such marketing tactics, so how does apply outside this setting? Well, there are certainly a few uses within the realms of security. With data security being such a big part of life these days, geofencing can be applied as a safe guard. The way this works is to set up a perimeter with one of two rules: either certain data cannot be accessed within/outside the perimeter, or devices automatically shut down outside the perimeter. If you want to look to wider personal security, this is already being applied by parents to ensure that their kids can’t access inappropriate material near their school, via apps installed on both their own and their child’s phones.
Of course, this also applies outside offices. Even putting the data security aside, many construction sites have geofencing strategies to show not only when workers are on site, but also to monitor the movement of equipment. Once set up, the contractors can tell when certain items leave the site, or even have it set up to prevent them being used outside the work area.
So, with that lengthy introduction out of the way, let’s have some fun! It’s time to speculate how geofencing could be utilized in the future.
I want to start here with something applies to the everyday world in a mundane setting: the rise of ‘smart devices’ in the home. You may notice that science fiction shows often show things such as houses that can tell when their occupant returns home and adjust the house temperature to ‘just right’, turn the lights on, and so on. These are all things that can be achieved now with geofencing. You simply set up the perimeter around your house, and have the devices set to power on when you arrive. Yes, there are similar systems to do the same things too, such as electricity and power company phone apps that allow you to manually adjust temperatures, or timer plugs to get your desktop PC switched on and warmed up when you’re due home, but these do have some areas where time has an effect: you need to manually operate the temperature apps, and the timer only works to plan if you arrive when expected to. If new build homes were to come with an in built geofence, these steps could be bypassed and refined. Pretty useful, right?
Then there are the potential uses in competitions. If a person were to set up a number of geofences within an area, and had an app set up to send specific clues or pointers when a registered user enters one, you could essentially set up a modern treasure hunt. It’d be like an app-focused geocaching!
Finally, there are further security potentials. The obvious would be to install the apps as defaults in smart cars and use this to track stolen vehicles. Rather than explore this though, I wanted to offer an idea whereby geofencing could help reduce a different type of crime: gun violence.
We already have what are known as locationised guns. These work by using GPS to ensure that they are only fired in certain areas, such as a hunting ground. The problem is that, due to legislative restrictions, they have never been developed commercially. Since these work in a similar way to geofencing principals though, it’s not a big leap of the imagination to say that you could set up a perimeter around high density areas such as schools or shopping malls and use these to prevent locationised gun from being deployed therein.
Of course, if this were rolled out as a standard for all guns sold in a country, city, town, etc., it would potentially prevent law enforcement from firing too, thusly reducing their effectiveness if faced with an armed attacker wielding a blade or explosives, wouldn’t it? Well, not necessarily. As stated above, you can disable and enable certain devices using a geofence as a basis. If you were to limit use to law enforcement issued weapons, that would allow bodies such as the police to continue to operate. Now there would of course be the worry that someone wanting to commit a crime could acquire a police weapon to bypass this, but even if we ignore the potential to restrict the use of individual weapons using the same technology, there’s already another workaround for that: smart guns also already exist. These weapons are equipped with tools that prevent unauthorized users from firing them, with solutions ranging from finger print recognition to physical tokens. Were law enforcement weapons to move exclusively to this system with the operation being based on finger print (or indeed similar) technology, this would also act as a way to prevent this.
So, there you have it. I hope that was as interesting for you to read as it was for me to write. But what do you think? Were you already aware of geofencing? How could you see it being used in the future? Let me know in the comments below.
Meanwhile, if you want to lean more about geofences, click on over to Radar’s information page.