Tech Terms: Geofence

A geofence is a virtual perimeter around a real world area. Geofence technology can be used to identify when someone or something enters or leaves the geofenced area. This then triggers some form of action.

For example, Countdown supermarkets use geofence technology for their Click and Collect service. A geofence applies to the area within 400m of the store, and when the customer crosses the geofence perimeter an alert is sent to the store to bring out the order for the customer to collect. In this way, the store can be forewarned that the customer is approaching and provide the order without any delay.

Geofences are a powerful tool for managing effects generated by the collective users of any smartphone app. A city in the US was having difficulties with ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft. The app users were requesting pick up on an already busy street, resulting in kerbside congestion, double parking and increased risks to other road users such as cyclists. One of the ride providers, Lyft, used geofence technology to prevent users requesting pick ups on the busiest section of this street. Customers instead had to go to a side street or further down the main street for their pick up. This helped manage the kerbside congestion and improve safety.

What else can geofences do?

Geofences don’t only track people (via apps on their smartphones or wearable devices), geofences can be used to support the efficient use of connected vehicles and other equipment/objects. Logistics firms use geofences to better manage fleets as they come in to dispatch warehouses to promote an even flow. Equipment in a range of industries can be tracked and monitored so management is aware when the equipment leaves a geofenced area.

This technology also has useful application in remote locations. Tourists use mobile apps such as CamperMate to explore NZ. The information from the app can help with avoiding congestion and identifying appropriate camping sites. NZ Mountain Safety Council partnered with Campermate to also bring tourists relevant safety information for the areas they were visiting. As the visitor entered a remote walking track (with a geofence), relevant safety information was sent. So mobile apps designed for one purpose can be adapted to bring other benefits. It provides a unique ability to deliver information at the right time, and can be applied to reduce environmental effects (by educating on the “right” way to go about activities).

Geofences can be used to track staff working across multiple job sites if each site has a geofence (e.g. timesheetmobile.com). In addition to work tracking, geofencing can also promote safety. Staff working in remote locations can be monitored to ensure that they leave the remote area safely – an alert is generated if a staff member is still within the remote area after the expected exit time.

Are there limits to geofence application?

So geofences (paired with other technologies) can create powerful tools. However, they can only be used in some circumstances as they require the person to give consent for the tracking.

They work well within a business where employees and equipment can be tracked and monitored freely. They offer great opportunities for efficiency within the activity and avoiding effects on others. For example better traffic management for industrial or construction activities. The technology can even extend to whether the equipment can operate in the geofenced area. In the US locationized firearms have been created (but are not commercially available). These firearms will only fire in locations within the geofence (enabling use of firearms in geofenced gun clubs and rifle ranges but preventing their use elsewhere). Geofences could similarly be used to control heavy machinery around sensitive resources such as streams.

For managing the actions of the wider public, it is a little more difficult due to privacy safeguards. The geofence is the framework technology but people do not trigger the geofence unless they have opted into the associated system, usually by installing a mobile app from the business/organisation. So in the example in the intro above, the supermarket customers have opted into the Click and Collect app which gives their consent to share with the store when they cross the geofence.

One of the leading use cases of geofencing is in sales and marketing in the retail sector. It is used aggressively overseas in more competitive retail markets than we have here in New Zealand (with stores geofencing a competitor’s store so they can target customers with an appealing offer just as they are about to walk in to the competitor’s store). While New Zealand’s uptake of mobile apps for physical stores is not large by international standards, some of the most significant traffic generators in our retail sector are also those businesses with the best rates of mobile app uptake by customers. These include big box retailers (specifically The Warehouse), supermarkets, service stations and fast food franchises. So what if these apps assisted these businesses to manage the traffic effects generated by customers as part and parcel of their store promotions.

In conclusion, geofences enable businesses to delineate areas and trigger an action when a person or piece of equipment enters or leaves that area. It has many applications, including promoting efficient operation of activities and the management of adverse effects. It also enables better compliance and monitoring as it provides real time data rather than spot checks which can miss many non-compliances.

This post is part of a series on tech terms, see the first post in the series here.

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