Thursday, December 9, 2010

Beyond Water, Telephones and Energy: Is Geographic Information the New Utility?

Ordnance Survey maps are everywhere, even when you can't see them.

What's your image of an Ordnance Survey (OS) map? Something that comes neatly folded to fit into the large pockets of a weather-proof jacket? Yet opens to the size of a small dining table, and is then almost impossible to close up again?

Because if it is, that's an extremely outdated perspective. The OS still sell around three million of those paper maps each year, but they represent less than 10% of their £140 million income.

What the OS really sells is geographic information. It's the authority on where everything is in Britain. The location of every cattlegrid, visible earthwork and windmill (with or without sails) across the UK is plotted and recorded by the OS's team of 250 field surveyors.

This is valuable information. We might inhabit an increasingly virtual world but it's hugely reliant on up-to-date maps of the physical landscape. Satellite navigation systems, insurance fraud detectors, online route planners, utility companies, emergency services and local authorities are all users of OS digital data. Google maps for the UK are powered by the OS.

Your business, whatever you do, relies on OS data. At the very least it's helps delivery drivers to find you.

Businesses are increasingly turning to location information as a way to drive business. Social media tools such as Foursquare allow phone users to record where they are and, more importantly, to see what special offers are available nearby. MyVoucherCodes local has launched a new service aimed at giving small retailers the opportunity to promote themselves to nearby shoppers, via their mobile phone.

Digital technology is discovering new ways of  exploiting the commercial potential of geographic information. Some entrepreneurs are building new business on it. Locatorz plots the postion of a mobile phone onto an OS map, allowing the user's position to be monitored. Mission:Explore London provides education through location-specific missions navigated via  mobile phone.

So is it possible that geographic information is a new utility? Like electricity, it's invisible and when it's turned on we appreciate the resulting effect - light, heat - but don't think about the power behind it. In the same way, as we use our smartphone to search for a local restaurant or rely on sat nav to get us to our destination, we don't give a moment's thought to the geographic information that's powering the service.

Despite being a government department the OS is entirely self-funded through sales of mapping data. It's currently moving its one thousand staff into purpose-built, environmentally friendly and very shiny new offices in Southampton. 

The complex has been designed to stand for a least 50 years, but it looks like the OS, and the powerful services that it delivers, will be around for a lot longer than that.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Potential Solution to the Problem of Missed Parcel Deliveries

The other day I queued in the freezing wind outside the Post Office for almost half an hour.

It was a cold, uncomfortable experience. But I had no choice because I wanted to quickly get my hands on the Amazon parcel that I'd missed the day before.

As I work from home, being out when a delivery arrives is a rare event, and on this occasion it was particularly frustrating as I needed the item as soon as possible.

By coincidence, the following day I received a press release for a gadget that promises to solve the problem of missed deliveries.

The exotically named ParcelPal Secure Container is a big metal box with a key-operated door on the front. You attach it to your house or office and go out for the day in the knowledge that when your online shopping or an unexpected lumpy gift from Auntie Mabel arrives, you won't simply recieve a 'sorry we missed you' slip through your letterbox.

The Secure Container is more than just storage box. It comes with an intercom unit, which presumably has a button labelled: 'If we're out press here'. Pushing said button initiates a call to a pre-designated mobile phone number, allowing the delivery person to hold a conversation with the phone user.

Assuming that the phone user is happy to accept the parcel, they use their phone keypad to unlock the Secure Container remotely. The delivery is put inside the container and, I assume, the delivery person is responsible for ensuring the lockable door is firmly closed.

If you only miss parcels occasionally, the Secure Container isn't for you. Because of the mobile phone technology it has to be rented, rather than bought, at a cost of £24.99 per month. Amazon and eBay powersellers are interested in the product, apparently, because of the high volumes of deliveries they receive.

I won't be queuing for a ParcelPal Secure Container. But it's an interesting application of mobile technology and may find a niche with some home-based small businesses.

Want to find out more about the ParcelPal Secure Container? Click here.

Do you have an innovative product that might be of interest to small businesses? We'd be happy to hear from you.