Presence, Positioning, & Proximity

by Alan Graham

I have been thinking of writing this entry for about a year now, but somehow I never got around to it. Recently, however, Tim O'Reilly pointed to a news item that discusses combining presence detection (the "I'm online" signal in instant messenging) with GPS technology. He remarked, "Definitely a taste of the future here..."

Let's step back four years...

I was consulting for a number of tech companies in the DC area, when a company called PresenceWorks asked me to join their start-up as a full-time employee (#3). It had some high profile backers, but it was the technology that excited me. The company had developed a presence detection engine which could detect the signals from AIM, MS Messenger, and others. As proof of concept we had setup an online job site where people could find workers who were online and available to work immediately. This allowed people to negotiate a short-term gig in real-time.

And while we were preaching presence to the world, it turns out that most of the world was not ready to hear about it. First to market has been the death knell of my career on more than one occasion.

After leaving the company to pursue a writing career, I continued to consult for PresenceWorks, and my ideas for the technology continued to grow. I was not only pitching the idea of presence and positioning, but also combining that technology with proximity. Although I was saying it years ago, I'll state it once again. Presence + Positioning + Proximity does not equal the future, because the future is already here. Presence technology is much more efficient than making phone calls, using radio communications, and certainly more cost effective. If you currently use calls to distribute information, you are wasting valuable resources. I want all the corporate execs and government agencies out there to pay attention to the rest of this entry, it will change how you do business forever (call me!).

Let's look at some examples of what I wanted to see happen with presence years ago, and how it can still be applied today.

Law Enforcement & Emergency Services

Solution 1: The FBI

There is a terror alert in a suburb of Washington DC. How do you mobilize an entire team of agents? You issue presence/gps enabled phones to every agent in the FBI across the country. When the alert comes through, the presence server looks for every "available" (availability is denoted by presence) FBI agent in the area of the alert. Using a combination of presence and proximity, it can automatically notify, by instant message, every available agent. It could send specific instructions to each agent on what the problem is and where to respond. Since the server knows who is available and who is not, it only contacts the viable agents. When additional agents come online, it would be able to notify them as well. The beauty of this solution is that you know where your people are and their current status. You also can tie a presence server to specific data about agents. For example, if you need to find every agent who is qualified as an expert in a certain field, who happens to be in a certain area, just ask your handy presence server.

Solution 2: Emergency Services

A terrorist attack on the city puts it into chaos. The presence server can coordinate Police & Rescue personnel to respond to the attack based on their proximity and availability. Also, the presence server can look for additional rescue personnel as they become available. In fact, it can make intelligent decisions based on specific criteria to notify even off duty personnel based on the level of the emergency. Not every officer or rescue worker is within the range of a radio, but they can be required to carry their phone at all times.

Now let's expand on this idea. Because of the chaos that ensues and the danger level of the attack, the presence server can send highly specific information to individuals based on proximity and location. For example, perhaps certain roads are closed or traffic is bad. The presence server can send instructions to each individual which would help to route their travel in a more efficient way. Rescue personnel can stay one step ahead of the bottlenecks.

Solution 3: General Alerts/All Points Bulletin

Broadcasting an all points bulletin over the airwaves is not always the best solution, if you are trying to keep that information from the individuals you are looking for. And you certainly don't always want the news media poking their nose in. In this scenario, the presence server can send very specific data on the alert to all members of law enforcement, (ATF, the FBI, police) to maximize the odds of catching the individual. Since this relies on presence and mobile phones, you can send this data across agencies without the use of the police band radio. And since it only notifies individuals who are "available," the level of efficiency is amazing. The server only notifies people as they appear.


Solution 1: Trucking

The trucking industry spends millions, if not billions, of dollars each year outfitting their trucks with sophisticated GPS tracking technology that costs a fortune. The same technology can be provided for a fraction of the cost with off-the-shelf mobile phones and a presence/proximity server. I mean, your truckers already have a mobile phone, so why buy more technology?

Let's say you have a fleet of a thousand trucks. You outfit each trucker with a presence/gps enabled phone. Now your entire fleet is not only trackable through mapping technology, but you can push data to those truckers based on their availability. Traffic or construction issues, the presence server can send the data to the appropriate trucks to help them make the right decisions. All types of messaging can be sent to truckers without the added expense of a phone call. Plus, you can push data to these truckers regardless of their actual location (perhaps they are away from the truck).

Solution 2: Sales

You have a very mobile sales force, in a company with thousands of employees. A lead comes in from a very specific area. The CEO wonders to himself, "Who do we have who is qualified in that area right now?" A simple consultation with the presence server tells you who is currently in that location with the qualifications you need. A click of the mouse and all the relevant information on the lead is sent to the right person. No phone calls made.

Solution 3: Stock Trading (just presence)

Making trades is something that needs to occur in a matter of minutes. To have a client list that requires a call or an email (which can get lost or hung up), is an absolute waste of time and resources. If you have a client list that requires notification of time sensitive information, by setting up a conditional logic list, you can find the contacts in your database who match the requirements and send them all that information based on their availability and it can be tailored to their specifications. And's instant.

The Public

Solution 1: Amber Alert

People could subscribe to a nationally sponsored, presence enabled Amber Alert. Since the alert uses presence and proximity, it can send out the alert to people as they become available within a certain region. For example, if you are from LA, but you are visiting San Francisco, and an Amber Alert for SF goes out, you would also be notified. If privacy concerns are an issue for you, people could opt out of the proximity and just subscribe to a region.

Solution 2: Personal Proximity

One of the problems I have with Instant Messaging is the inability of the messenger to know where I am and how to resolve issues of location. For example, with the use of Bluetooth, I could specify that when I go out of range of my computer, to switch my active IM to my phone. As I approach my computer, the IM would switch once again.

Solution 3: Objects

Presence and proximity should be tied and embedded into everyday objects. An example of this would be the Roomba robotic vacuum. The vacuum would use standard presence technology combined with proximity detection (through Bluetooth) to report its status to me at all times, regardless of whether or not I'm in the house. I can tell which room it is in, how full it is, the battery status, and even tell it to clean a specific room. It can also tell me when it has a problem.

Remove proximity, and just add presence to any number of objects around the house. Fridge, coffee maker, etc. I would have killed for this last summer when the freezer in the basement crapped out and I lost $400 in food. A simple communication of voltage issues would have told me it was about to die. Of course, even though the compressor caught on fire and died, it could have told me it was no longer working

Which leads me to smoke/carbon monoxide detectors. Why not presence enable them? I know when they need a new battery, I know if my house is burning down. And that same technology can be built into my security system.

You don't need to use some newly created networking technology to do this. If AOL were smart, they would build this technology off of their already successful AIM platform and beat MS to the punch. Seriously, this is the competitor to the Microsoft SPOT technology they plan to embed in consumer electronics. Firstly, AOL had the leading IM in the world, so they have market penetration. Secondly, it could run over the existing network, only under a different designation (instead of people, objects). And lastly, I already use their presence engine in OS X. Adding a panel of object presence (in addition to people) would be a no brainer.

The Future is Now

All the components for the above already exist. It is just a matter of some smart people to put it together or give me some money and I'll do it for you. I've spent the past four years thinking about how to use presence, it is good to see the rest of the world starting to pay attention.

Make checks payable to...


2004-02-20 11:35:18
It looks good on paper
I use a sophisticated military version of this sort of thing, and it is a pain in the ass. The ability for higher headquarters to push information at us does more harm than good because they cannot see what is happening on the ground, but attempt to control it anyway. The more ways they have to communicate, the more they try to communicate, which ultimately takes the decision-making process away from the ones with "eyes-on" to those theorizing about it in an office somewhere. Furthermore, most of the information that gets pushed is "unfounded", but since it is so easy to push it, they keep doing it. Just about any easy-to-use communication channel quickly becomes noisy, making it the boy who cried wolf.

The system needs to push the other way. Instead of disseminating information, it needs to collect it and simply make it available. That is about the only time it is any good. To get things done, decisions need to happen at the lowest level possible, and these sorts of technologies hinder that.

Besides that, the greatest benefit is lateral communication rather than higher direction. The ability to talk to people operating at the same level as you to coordinate actions is much more valuable. Good leadership at the low levels takes care of the coordination. Indeed, we purposely avoid using the communication equipment in favor of hand signals, whistles, and other low-tech means so the level above us leave us alone to do our work.

Indeed, if you read Guiliani's account of his response to the Twin Towers disaster, he states that he was only effective because he was there on the scene. New York City's computerized emergency response center was unusable and cell phone towers were overloaded (or destroyed). First responders get to work because they know what to do, not because someone coordinates every action or tells them everything that is going on. No one needs to tell police or firemen to go to where the big explosion---they figure that out on their own.

Getting the message out has not been a problem. I was already on alert before the second plane hit, and I was in Chicago at the time. Emergency workers from all over had already thrown their gear into their cars and were on their way to New York. I experienced the same rapidity when I responded to the 1992 riots in Los Angeles.

We continually bemoan the fact that people think this is a problem that needs a technological solution. We often joke that we want to take up a collection to make the inventors of these things live with their inventions in the real world, because often it is simply more weight to carry and more stuff that can break. Never have we said "If we only had better technology", although we often say "I wish that they would tell us something that turned out to be true".

2004-02-20 12:06:14
GPS and Buildings
How would the presence-enabled devices work around problems of not having direct line of sight to a satellite?

I ask because I've looked at a couple of GPS devices (eg a running odometer) which fail if there are just trees in the way; these presence-enabled devices would need to be similarly light and low power to make them usable so I can imagine it will be a while before they'll be able to deal with being indoors/in a car effectively.

It would be reasonable to use the "last seen outdoors" location as a proximity location, but that would probably break down if the device spends all its time in a car, or in any city with an extensive underground public transport network.

All the same, I'm glad I spend all day at a desk so I don't need to worry about using something like this in my job :-)

2004-02-20 12:25:18
The major shipping companies get far more info than location/presence of their drivers from the dedicated hardware installed in the trucks. It's often a live, monitored (and archived) dialog between the center and vehicle from the moment they leave the property, sending great amounts of detail about the truck and the cargo. They know the location, speed and even some performance specs of the vehicle (fuel efficiency and so forth) and can identify when a truck needs service, even while the vehicle is still on the road. If the truck breaks the speed limit for more than a few moments, the company can be notified. If the shipment involves foods, they can often tell you the temperature of the goods they're carrying, sometimes right down to the individual pallette in the trailer. Food deliveries are often scheduled to start within a ten-minute window: if they weren't already using this stuff, they would be SOL. Smaller trucking companies might use presence enabled phones for general purposes, but if there's any industry out there that already understands the benefits of telepresence to the bottom line, it's interstate shipping.
2004-02-20 18:40:07
You make good points. I am aware of these things, I'm just using these examples to make a point about the technology.
2004-02-20 18:43:46
GPS and Buildings
How would the presence-enabled devices work around problems of not having direct line of sight to a satellite?

Issues that need to be resolved, but I believe we'll see a solution that combines GPS technologies with other forms of radio frequency for positioning. Already you can triangulate a location based on cell phone data.

Yes, the "last position" is one possible resolution for some of these issues.

Again, I'm just trying to get people to think of possible applications for this technology.

2004-02-23 12:59:54
It looks good on paper, part 2
Regarding usage by FBI, EMS, FEMA and so forth in the wake of a terrorist attack, it was my experience in 9/11 and in the black-out that normal communications media were more-or-less completely disabled. I know these are "details that can be worked out", but the devil is in the details, as they say. I wonder how effective for emergency management such a network would actually be, short of making it private and multiply redundant. Which would likely put the cost of such a network well beyond the financial reach of most states.
2004-02-23 13:00:41
It looks good on paper, part 2
Er, but I *do* like the idea as an expansion of current consumer services...
2004-02-24 02:54:18
It looks good on paper
Constant attempts at micromanagement are indeed a very real problem.

The idea of the tech you describe in the military was indeed that there could be a 2-way stream of information so that everyone (both on the battlefield and in the headquarters area) would know what was going on all over the place.

In reality of course the amount of data that would generate to the individual troopers (most of which would be useless to them as it pertains to events well outside their scope) would be too large for them to handle (at HQ there's supposed to be an entire team working on the same data...) and the only thing it gets used for is ever more finegrained control by people who are out of the loop.

I think this is in part a learning experience for all involved. Are these commanders told that their micromanagement attempts are counterproductive? Are they even open for such comments from lower-ranking troopers (I guess some won't be but many will)?

Maybe the tech described here can help limit the data overload in the system by limiting the tactical data transmitted to each trooper to only that data he actually needs in his immediate surroundings (like the tank sitting behind that house you're facing but not the one on the other side of town).

But you are quite correct in your opinion that overreliance on technology is highly dangerous.
Tech breaks down at the worst moments, and in those cases you need to continue to be effective (in fact, you need to be more effective without tech as you cannot rely on the rest of the infrastructure which was supported by that tech to still be operational).

Tech has a place, but it should never be seen as a means to replace human thinking and intuition.