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Location data finds a home in mobile business intelligence apps

The combination of location intelligence and mobile BI tools can help users take analytics into the field, but there are challenges to be aware of.

Companies increasingly are looking to take analytics out of the office. And in many cases, they're combining mobile business intelligence software with tools that can analyze location data to add a geographic component to BI applications.

For example, Chris Hickman, a principal consultant at Decision First Technologies Inc. in Atlanta, said he recently helped a natural gas company implement a location intelligence system that agents inspecting possible gas production sites can use to help decide while they're in the field whether to make rights-purchase offers to the property owners.

You can't take an existing desktop dashboard that you use in the office and dump it on someone's device. You've got to design for the device, design for the role, design for the activity.

Howard Dresner,
analyst, Dresner Advisory Services

When a landowner calls the company offering to sell the rights to gas deposits found on a property, dispatchers can see in the system which agents are in the area. The nearest representative can then be sent to the property and can check from a mobile device to see if it's close enough to existing pipelines and refineries to be worth making a deal for the drilling rights. That research previously had to be done by employees back at the office, wasting valuable time in evaluating properties and opening negotiations with landowners, said Hickman, who declined to identify the gas company.

"Because they can talk with the ranch owners and immediately look at the maps on the mobile devices, they're able to respond a lot more quickly than the competition," he said, adding that the rapid-response capabilities increase the odds that the property owner will agree to a sale.

But the confluence of mobile BI and location-based analysis presents some challenges for IT and BI teams that should be taken into account before embarking on a mobile location intelligence initiative.

Don't stray from your location intelligence plan

Hugh Strawn, vice president of catastrophe services at the Property Loss Research Bureau (PLRB), an insurance industry resource group in Downers Grove, Ill., said an organization might start a project with a clear set of objectives in mind but then make changes to the plan midstream -- a move that could send the deployment astray.

With the help of geographic information system software vendor Esri, the PLRB recently released a mobile version of an application it offers to member organizations that enables claims adjusters to analyze weather data and predict down to specific street addresses where severe weather incidents are likely to have occurred. Strawn said the information helps adjusters decide whether claims should be paid or investigated further.

Location intelligence systems can do many things, Strawn said. But, he added, companies should stick to the capabilities that are most important to meeting business needs -- particularly on mobile applications that have to run on devices with small keyboards and reduced screen real estate.

"Sit down and clearly define what it is you want the product to look like when you're done," he said. "What is it supposed to do? The clarity and direction is crucial."

User interface design is a crucial element of any BI or location intelligence application, but that's especially true for mobile apps because of the screen size limitations. Simply pushing desktop versions of applications onto mobile devices is big mistake, warned Howard Dresner, an analyst at Dresner Advisory Services in Nashua, N.H. "You can't take an existing desktop dashboard that you use in the office and dump it on someone's device," he said. "You've got to design for the device, design for the role, design for the activity."

Avoid the location data design trap

In mobile location intelligence implementations, it's an easy trap for programmers to load up maps with numerous data points in an effort to deliver as much information as possible to the user. But that typically leads to information overload and an application so cluttered it can be impossible to use, Dresner said.

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Another factor that can complicate the design of mobile location intelligence applications is the use of Adobe Flash plug-ins. Hickman pointed out that many mobile devices, in particular the iPad and iPhone, don't support Flash; in fact, Adobe has stopped developing new versions of Flash Player for mobile platforms. But many multimedia elements, including interactive maps showing location data, typically are designed using the Adobe technology.

Application developers may be able to get around that issue by using other methods. For example, various BI vendors now allow developers to build mobile applications in HTML5, a markup language that can be used to create interactive elements. Still, Hickman said some HTML5 features currently aren't supported by mobile operating systems. Programmers need to understand what the devices being used in their organizations will and won't support before designing location-based applications for mobile users, he said.

Hickman also cited connections to corporate servers as an issue that needs to be considered. The typical way for mobile users to remotely connect to secure servers is through a virtual private network. But he said some of the business users he has worked with at clients thought VPN connections were overly complicated to establish and didn't want to bother with them.

Instead of a VPN client, Hickman recommends using a reverse proxy connection that allows users to access a secure URL through an SSL certificate, a process that he said should feel familiar to most people regardless of their comfort level with technology. "It's easier to push the technical implementations back into the IT department rather than having, say, your CFO having to implement a VPN," Hickman said.

Ed Burns is site editor of SearchBusinessAnalytics. Email him at and follow him on Twitter: @EdBurnsTT.

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