Open Menu Close Menu

Location-Aware Services >> Where on Earth...?

As ubiquitous computing efforts expand, the need to know where other people and devices are becomes critical to split-second decision-making. The question is: Will higher ed lead the LAS movement for the mainstream, as well?

Where on Earth...?Ask any college student attending a university in the Northeast or Midwest, and you'll discover that in the world of frigid-winter academia, there is nothing worse than just missing the campus shuttle bus in 12-degree weather. Today, however, students at a handful of colleges can stay warm and cozy inside their dorm rooms while they track the location of the shuttle bus on their cell phones—all thanks to the implementation of location-aware services (LAS) on their campuses.

But just what are location-aware services? To put it simply, they are applications that deliver location-based information whenever and wherever it may be needed. Ideally, these services are accessed via whatever means is convenient to the user: mobile phone, PDA, pager, laptop, or desktop. LAS is part of the larger location-based solutions (LBS) picture that comprises GPS-enabled mobile computing services (communication and computation via mobile devices), location-enabling services (used for user-locating), and locationaware services (IP-based applications).

The Campus: Ideal Environment for LAS

In a nutshell, the technology behind LAS enables people, computers, and other devices to know, within a few feet, where another is, at all times; such services or applications then allow individuals—or their devices—to make "decisions" based on that knowledge. There has been much talk recently about the over-hyping of these kinds of services; for instance, Gartner's July report, Hype Cycle for Wireless Hardware, Software and Services, 2006, which details high expectations for LAS, now climbing out of a mainstream adoption "trough" and finally heading into a two-year adoption forecast. But the fact of the matter is that LAS may take off faster on US and worldwide campuses than in the general consumer environment. That's because via their devotion to web tools such as MySpace, Facebook, and newer campus-generated social networking offerings, college and university students are now accustomed to "social networking" applications and thus are conditioned to communicating with each other 24/7 via the campus intranet or the web. Yet, this kind of connecting takes place in the virtual world only. What if kids want to "connect" with each other in person, almost as instantly as they connect online? What if they want to find things they need in the physical world—a bus ride, a pizza, a study resource—as easily as they locate things in the virtual universe?

As it turns out, any number of technology providers has anticipated this eventual need of the mainstream consumer. What's more, the partnering among computing and mobile computing device makers, wireless service providers, geographic information systems (GIS), and/ or global positioning systems (GPS) vendors has been quietly going on behind the scenes for some years, with huge players like Nokia, Sprint Nextel jockeying for a leading edge. Much academic discussion has centered on the need for open standards in this area, but even with that as an obstacle, and the emergence of only a smattering of players in the dedicated application space—WaveMarket and education-focused Rave Wireless are two—location-enabled services (comprising both LAS and LBS) have been predicted to become an $8- to $11-billion business by 2008 (depending upon what you read and who you speak to).

Still, despite slow adoption by the general public, the uses of LAS on college and university campuses appear to be wide-ranging, from tracking the nearest campus shuttle bus (our opening example), alerting the campus community of inclement weather conditions or other potential threats to safety, and monitoring a student's progress as he or she crosses an urban campus late at night, to the simple act of quickly finding a study buddy or tracking a pizza delivery van. Not surprisingly, colleges are beginning to embrace (or at least look seriously at) LAS as a value-add for their students, and also as a useful teaching and learning tool.


It is now possible for MIT's campus community members to quickly locate each other via laptop. The "friendspotting" capability is enabled by almost 3,000 WiFi access points, boasts a highly precise positioning system, and was designed with particular attention to privacy and data storage issues: There is no centralized storage of data, and everything happens via encrypted peer-to-peer transmission among users.

The fact of the matter is, locationaware services are a natural outcropping of today's more useful—and used—technologies. LAS incorporates the GPS technology that (to comply with federal E911 regulations) is now standard on most cell phones. In addition, most college students are now equipped with cell phones: The Educause Center for Applied Research reports that 91 percent of post-secondary students carry and use a cell phone. That figure is no doubt growing: According to CTIA, The Wireless Association (formerly the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association), cell phone usage in the US, in general, increased to 207.9 million users in 2005, over 182.4 million the year before.

The Brave and the Few

As it stands now, though administrators at many higher ed institutions are assessing the need for using LAS to enable emergency notification, shuttle-bus tracking, or just plain "friend-finding" (the next hot campus tech term), it's hard to find LAS well-implemented on a US campus—or at least, it's tough to find it well-thoughtout. Leave it, of course, to MIT pioneers to shrug off the budding (if not adolescent) crop of application providers in the LAS space, and boldly develop their own solution, iFIND. iFind was expressly designed by the researchers in MIT's SENSEable City Laboratory (in conjunction with the Information Services and Technology department) to make it possible for any of the 20,000 constantly mobile campus community members accross the Institute's 168 acres to locate anyone else, via laptop. At MIT, the new capability is called "friendspotting," and is enabled by almost 3,000 WiFi access points. The system, with its "extremely precise" positioning system, was designed with particular attention to privacy and data storage issues. Thus, there is no centralized storage of data, and everything happens via encrypted peer-to-peer transmission among users.


WITH iFIND, STUDENTS AT MIT can track down
friends for impromptu study groups or meet with faculty
members who happen to be nearby on campus.

"iFind is device-centric, not networkcentric," explains Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Lab. "All the intelligence is inside the client application instead of a central server, so nobody can track your position unless you want him to, and you decide how to exchange information with the outside world." Though iFIND currently deals with location data, a whole array of additional personal information could be managed using the same interface and platform. Right now, iFIND helps MIT campus community members find each other quickly ("Imagine coming out of a class in a far-off corner of the MIT campus, and instantly knowing which friends are nearby, or being able to schedule an appointment with a faculty member, based on his or her proximity to you," says Ratti), but future applications of the system will include the ability to select third parties as "friends" and let them share data anonymously. (An iFIND user could, for instance, let the police department know where a given student is, in case of emergency, and yet not reveal the student's identity up front.)

At Montclair State University (NJ), a rush to wireless leadership (as in the case of MIT) wasn't necessarily the driver behind the institution's LAS initiative; administrators and technicians were simply grappling with a shortage of landlines and the need to stay in touch with the institution's student population, recounts Edward Chapel, associate VP for IT. Noting the burgeoning use of cell phones on campus, university officials decided to develop a cellular infrastructure. Then, "We decided that if we were going to go to the trouble of instituting a cellular network, we might as well see what else we could do with it," he says.

An early adopter of LAS, MSU actually launched a pilot of the technology two years ago. The college partnered with Rave Wireless (a provider of mobile apps and mobile phone offerings geared specifically to the higher ed space) to develop applications that eventually would become the cornerstone of the college's recently launched Campus Connect program. "We were [Rave's] maiden voyage, and they have since taken some of our applications and built a standard portfolio around them," Chapel says.


Montclair State University (NJ) is an early adopter of three Rave Wireless location-aware offerings: a shuttle bus locator service (tracks exact location and ETA), a security service (students can register their treks across campus and the system alerts campus police of non-responsiveness), and a social networking service that helps students locate the whereabouts of "community" buddies.

Indeed, Montclair's location-aware services include Rave's three most popular offerings: Rave Transit, a shuttle bus locator service that incorporates transponders on each bus to track the exact location and estimated time of arrival; Rave Guardian, a security service that, for safety purposes, enables a student to register his trek across campus and puts campus police on alert should the student not check in within a reasonable time period; and Rave Entourage, a social networking service that enables users to create communities and determine the locations of community members who want to be located—useful if a student has two hours to kill on campus but doesn't know where his buddies are.

For deploying LAS technology to protect its students, MSU earned the 2006 Jeanne Clery Award from Security on Campus, a nonprofit grassroots organization dedicated to safe campuses for college and university students. "That award was gratifying because there is a tendency to regard location-aware applications as mere gadgetry, but now they are getting some real traction in the higher ed space," Chapel says.

Today, as part of MSU's Campus Connect program (and included in tuition), all incoming students receive a cellular handset. The program is mandatory, because MSU also is using the cell phones as data-collection tools in the classroom. (Students take tests and answer questions via the phones, and results are compiled in real time. Not a location-aware service, Chapel notes, but one more value-add for students and, in this case, faculty.)

For deploying LAS technology to protect its students, Montclair State earned the 2006 Jeanne Clery Award from nonprofit organization Security on Campus.

A Growing Trend

Increasingly, location-aware services are being viewed as a good fit for higher ed, most importantly because they open a line of communication that did not previously exist between student and college.

"Students these days don't read e-mail, and they certainly don't read standard mail," says Chapel, "so if you want to get something out there that is actually read, it can be done by text messaging. [Employing] GPS, it's feasible to use text messaging to target messages geographically— say, to announce a class cancellation due to inclement weather."

Raju Rishi, COO and co-founder of Rave Wireless, sees text messaging as a big selling point for his company's applications. "The youth of today lives and dies by text messaging," he maintains. "Kids view it as their lifeline, and they are more receptive to other applications used in conjunction with the phone, rather than using that device just for voice transmission. The widespread use of cell phones by students used to represent a cultural gap, but now universities are seeing that they can leverage that device usage to their advantage."

Ronald Forsythe, VP for planning, assessment, technology, and commercialization at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, agrees. "There will be a large percentage of higher education institutions offering these services because they realize [the technology will] help them communicate with the students." UMES is rolling out the Rave Wireless Guardian and Entourage apps as part of the institution's Hawk Talk mobile communications program. The college is also looking at implementing a weather service that provides weather and classcancellation information to students, based on their location. Though Hawk Talk is currently an opt-in program, UMES saw a nearly 60 percent "take" rate for incoming students because of the Guardian safety-focused application, Forsythe notes. "We had a big discussion with the students and parents explaining the benefits of the program, and the location-aware services were big sellers."

And at Wake Forest University (NC), Jay Dominick, CIO and assistant VP for information systems, insists students will embrace LAS for learning, because they mimic the more interactive learning style already pervasive in modern society. "Much of our reasoning behind the adoption of location-aware services came from watching the way younger kids interact with their handheld games. In a large sense, those are location-based games," he points out. "Students engage in experiential learning, and this is an extension of that: It forces them to get out of their seats and face a situation where they have to figure out the best solution. It's a new way of learning, and I'm hoping that someone can use location-aware services to implement a better way of visualizing that." WFU is one of about 25 Rave Wireless higher ed customers, and one of "only a handful" thus far using location-aware services, Rishi discloses.

Ronald Forsythe

"We had a big discussion with the students and
parents explaining the benefits of our Hawk Talk
mobile communications program, and the
location-aware services were big sellers."
—Ronald Forsythe,
University of Maryland Eastern Shore

Will Homegrown Take the Lead?

Following in MIT's footsteps, a number of colleges are looking at homegrown location-aware applications, or conducting LAS-based research they hope will someday make its way into the campus infrastructure.

Norman Sadeh, associate professor for the Institute of Software Research International and the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (PA), has been working on the MyCampus location-aware project for about six years. Collaborating with a student population that spans undergraduates through Ph.D. candidates in the university's Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) program, Sadeh has been looking at the impact of policies on the acceptance of LAS in different scenarios.

"Policies can range from where you are, what time of day it is, what your relationship is to another person, what day of the week it is, and the list can go on." But, "trying to get students to specify a few options is impossible," Sadeh says. "We experimented with different interfaces, put people in different scenarios, and had them create their policies based on those scenarios. What we found was that students were happy with the outcome only 60 percent of the time. If the student was able to modify each policy with each different scenario, his or her satisfaction rate increased only to 70 percent."

What does all of this policy-based investigation reveal? The bottom line, says Sadeh, is that currently there is no single solution that can please everyone, and much more research must be conducted to find an acceptable threshold for common situations. Through a recently awarded National Science Foundation grant, Sadeh and his group hope to discover that threshold.

"In part," he says, "we're trying to learn preferences and then make decisions based on those preferences, without getting to 100 percent accuracy. But is 99 percent enough? I guess it depends on the situation. We're looking at the broader problem of trying to determine how much is enough."

Some of the applications the MyCampus developers have experimented with include "recommendation" systems based on location. They utilize parameters such as time between classes, time of day, weather, student tastes (in the case of restaurant recommendations, for instance), and calendar events. The recommendation application was not very successful in the limited campus environment, but Sadeh believes this is one case where an LAS system would fare better in the general population—if only because there simply are many more opportunities for recommendations.

Interestingly, Sadeh notes that another application, crime alerts, also did not work well. But that was because, in this instance, "We could not come up with the right kind of interface, and the alerts ended up frightening the students more than helping them."

Some of the more successful projects connected to MyCampus: a reminder system that notifies a user of an event or a task, based on current location (a student traversing the campus passes the science building and is alerted about a homework or project assignment in the building that he has yet to pick up), and a "virtual poster" function. "Posters are tacked up everywhere on campus," says Sadeh, "so we looked at whether we could instead put those into an LAS application which allows the posters to be ‘retrieved' based on where the user is on campus."

Privacy: The 800-Pound Gorilla

As with the MIT iFIND services, privacy has been a primary consideration in every MyCampus application. "It's a very important element of our research," says Sadeh. "We've been looking at the spectrum of privacy issues and what people's privacy preferences are, but different people have different preferences, so it's hard to allow just two or three options for everyone."

When it comes to location-aware services, the argument is not that locationaware services are an invasion of privacy; but rather, how much privacy must one give up in order to access such services?

Rave Wireless' Rishi insists the answer to that question is: none. With any location- aware service, he points out, users decide whether they want to be located. "We set important ground rules; universities can't arbitrarily pick out location data," he explains. "Students can choose to activate their location services, or not; it's strictly voluntary." He also maintains that his company makes it clear to higher ed clients that it does not pass on any user information to the university. "Students need that trust factor. Once it is set, these services become more accepted."

Indeed, UMES' Forsythe claims that students may have more to fear from their parents than from a university's locationaware services. "Parents actually want more access. They want their child's grades sent to them or they want us to track the kids to make sure they're going to class," he says. "But we tell them, ‘No, we can't do that.'"

Yet despite those safeguards, Carnegie Mellon's Sadeh admits that as location-aware services become more ubiquitous, both on campus and in the general population, privacy will become the 800-pound gorilla that can't be ignored. "I don't see these applications really taking off unless you take privacy into account," he asserts. "Increasingly, you see all these people who post things on MySpace or Facebook that they later regret posting. Slowly, people are learning that some things need to stay private."

Rave is looking at a new application it believes will both address privacy issues and provide valuable location-based services. Dubbed ID Wash, the program purports to recognize an entity in a particular location but not the identity of the entity. This app would be suitable for measuring the number of people using a particular pathway at any time, for example, or determining whether more shuttle buses are needed on a given route, Rishi says.

At Carnegie Mellon University, Norman Sadeh notes that the crime alert LAS application did not work well in trials: "The alerts ended up frightening the students more than helping them."

Looking Ahead

As location-aware services continue to take hold on campuses nationwide, the applications that address safety, functionality, and convenience for both the students and the educational institution will undoubtedly take center stage.

Mapping capabilities and device-aware applications are among the possibilities more frequently discussed by universities already using location-aware services, as well as human resources functions such as time-clocking and inventory control. UMES, for example, is looking at an application that automatically clocks in an employee when he or she crosses a campus perimeter, and "pushes" work orders to the employee's cell phone, based on the individual's location.

MSU is looking at similar LAS apps for its IT department, which has a student staff of about 150 and a full-time permanent staff of 15. Says Chapel: "This application would enable us to locate where our employees are on campus and, based on their abilities and location, direct them to their next service call rather than have them come back to the department and then turn around and go right back out." This will result in less time between calls and more calls completed in one day, he says, but adds that other application considerations may be less obvious.

"Although some applications are too complex to actually implement now, we need to think ahead of the curve," says Chapel. "But we've made some great strides, and the pace of development, as well as the reliability of the applications, is impressive."

Still, the success of LAS clearly will depend on the growing acceptance of ubiquitous computing. "Ubiquity is the always-on nature of devices, and I can envision, at some point, total coordination of those devices via location-aware services," Chapel offers. "Broadband cellular is the key to ubiquity, and cellular is filling the gaps to allow applications to seamlessly traverse networks."

WFU's Dominick sees LAS and ubiquitous computing becoming tightly integrated sooner, rather than later: "If you look at the technology direction, carriers are definitely looking to make that happen." With initiatives like Verizon Wireless' TheZON, carriers are currently encouraging content and application developers to help them make such ubiquity (and the incorporated LBS) a reality.

It may be some time before they are fully successful, but the integration of GPS into the devices is a decisive first step.

"Putting GPS into handsets not only allows [the carriers] to fulfill the 911 requirements, it also enables data delivery," says Dominick. "Plus, WiFi networks are becoming more prolific, so connectivity is becoming synonymous with location. Within five years, everything will know exactly where everything else is, at all times." In the end, we all may wonder how we managed to get along, moving around obliviously.

WEBEXTRA :: For resources and related articles on wireless and mobile computing, click here.

EDITOR'S NOTE :: We welcome feedback from campuses and vendors engaged in LAS or LBS initiatives, for future coverage. E-mail us at [email protected].

comments powered by Disqus

Campus Technology News

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.