Networking

Context-aware mobility, what is it?

By now, companies that have mobilized business applications for smartphones or other handheld devices know of the competitive advantages they can gain. The more detailed and relevant the information at hand, the greater the opportunity an employee has to close a sale, speed time to delivery — or even save a life.

But these are early days for enterprise mobility, and most companies stop short of realizing its full potential. While they may be delivering customer relationship management, field service and other critical data to mobile devices, they are probably not delivering as much relevant information to users as they are capable of.

To provide this relevancy, context awareness is key. In a context-aware environment, wireless devices such as environmental sensors, radio frequency identification tags and smartphones send location, presence and other status information across the network. Specialized software captures, stores and analyzes the data, sending it back over the network to provide context at the end device as needed.

“Context-aware computing has one exciting future,” says William Clark, a Gartner analyst. By 2013, more than half of Fortune 500 companies will have context-aware computing initiatives, he predicts, noting that mobility is a subset that accounts for 80% of what's happening in this arena.

Think of context in this way: “It is something that can help people or other systems make decisions faster,” says Chris Thompson, senior director of mobility solutions at Cisco Systems Inc. “The vision for context awareness is to expose as much of this sensory information as possible to business applications so it can be correlated with existing business roles.”

Context-aware technology is available from companies such as Agito Networks Inc., Appear Networks Inc. and Cisco.

“For me, it's a no-brainer that context will become by default a requirement for mobile solutions,” says Sébastien Fabre, head of innovation and planning at SITA, an airline IT provider based in Geneva.

Ferreting out hidden supplies

Some of the earliest context-aware mobility projects have involved the integration of location information into wireless applications. For example, Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare (TMH) in Florida has been using location services for asset tracking since late 2006, says Jay Adams, IT enterprise architect for the hospital.

As of this spring, the hospital had tagged approximately 2,700 medical and wireless devices and updated the wireless infrastructure to make tracking possible anywhere in the 800,000-square-foot facility. The result: Accuracy now falls within four feet, Adams says. From AeroScout Inc.'s MobileView 4 application, nurses can more accurately locate needed IV pumps by drilling down to CAD-based floor maps imported into the Cisco Mobility Services Engine (MSE) and delivered into the asset-tracking system.

With context awareness, the hospital's asset-tracking initiative has gone from so-so to highly effective in enabling nurses to pinpoint supplies, Adams says. In the early days of asset tracking, nurses could detect device availability but still needed to spend precious time rummaging through any number of storage closets on the floor. And all too often, the application would show a stash of infusion pumps on the sixth floor when in reality they were stored two levels below, says Adams. He attributes that problem to the hospital's first-generation wireless network, which at the time was not location-grade.

“Because we were such early adopters, we and others didn't understand how critical the back-end wireless infrastructure is to asset tracking,” Adams says.

For the initial location-aware wireless deployment, TMH had selected omnidirectional antennas, with the intent of covering multiple floors and lots of square footage from a single access point. But by 2008, it was apparent that the antenna coverage was an issue and that an overhaul was in order, Adams says.

TMH recently evolved its asset-tracking system to AeroScout's asset-tracking software running on top of a context-aware, Cisco-based wireless infrastructure. The infrastructure includes the year-old MSE, which hosts the Cisco Context-Aware Software module for capturing, storing and analyzing contextual information.

TMH made several adjustments in the new wireless infrastructure, designed with the help of integrator Radiant Networks. For one, it changed from an omnidirectional to a high-gain directional patch antenna. In doing so, it flattened out RF propagation, providing the ability to focus radio signal coverage on each floor and reduce interfloor interference. It also deployed one-generation-newer access points (AP), moving from the Cisco 1230 to the 1242, and decreased the AP power output to better define RF propagation, Adams says.

In addition, TMH increased the density of APs, which now number about 545, up from 250, and moved the devices from the center to the perimeter of the floor. “So now every AP fires into the hospital rather than just providing an omnidirectional sphere,” Adams adds. Because the new infrastructure often tracks assets to within six feet of their locations, nurses now typically have to search no more than two storage areas.

Adding in context awareness has led to improved patient care, increased productivity for the nursing staff and lower spending on medical devices, Adams says. The success for this application has prompted the hospital to look at how else it might take advantage of context-aware technology, he adds.

For instance, the hospital is running a proof-of-concept test to see if it can eliminate manual recording of refrigeration temperatures by tagging the coolers and sending readings over the context-aware network to the MobileView software every 10 minutes. Should temperatures drop below a prescribed point, appropriate personnel would receive alerts on their mobile devices, Adams says. Based on the results of this pilot, the hospital would extend its monitoring presence to other systems, he adds.

Three challenges

Of course, context awareness doesn't happen in a vacuum. Enterprises must be aware of a number of challenges, one of the biggest being privacy, industry watchers say.

“Some of this personal privacy stuff just screams at you,” says Michael Finneran, principal at dBrn Associates Inc., an independent wireless consulting firm in Hewlett Neck, N.Y. “We see a lot of this from local governments, which want to use location services to find out where their housing inspectors are sleeping,” he says.

But unions have balked at such deployments, suggesting that supervisors need not know everybody's whereabouts all the time. A work-around is to limit monitoring to the lunch hour and after 5 p.m., and to promote the idea of increasing worker safety, he suggests.

A second challenge is the federation of information, Gartner's Clark says. To add context awareness, a system may need an ID from a user's carrier, a meeting time from a smartphone calendar or information from a social media platform. But ownership of the information is a big issue. Does the carrier own the ID, or does the user?

“Whoever owns that information will need to be compensated, either monetarily or in service,” Clark says.

Last is the challenge of complexity. “It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the next level is correlating all of this context information, and there's a lot of opportunity to make the world more complex than simple,” Clark says. “The trick will be to figure out how to keep it simple and in a way that's scalable, agile and quick.”

Smooth airport operations

These potential challenges aren't stopping some users. SITA is implementing a context-aware test platform that centers on the Appear Context Engine (ACE), a rules engine that determines where and when information should be available, and to whom. Appear, a Swedish mobile software provider, also offers push/provisioning, synchronization and device management modules, all made context-aware via the ACE.

At an airport, context awareness will come into play in many ways for a variety of constituents, SITA's Fiore says. In the case of a security breach, the personnel closest to the incident would receive alerts, a map of the problem area and perhaps video from nearby surveillance cameras. Meanwhile, duty managers handling aircraft turnaround could more efficiently allocate tasks to baggage handlers, gate agents and maintenance crews while streamlining deployment of air bridges, fuel trucks and luggage ramps.

Fiore says that one airline reported that implementing a context-aware mobility platform has enabled it to change its staffing practices from one duty manager per aircraft to one manager for four or five planes. As a result, it projects double-digit cuts in aircraft line maintenance and intervention time. It's also considering a hosted context-aware service from SITA to streamline operations at airports where it doesn't have a large enough presence to warrant building out a context-aware mobility network of its own, Fiore says.

As enterprises grow into their mobility initiatives, context-aware technology will play an increasingly important role for them. Appear has found context awareness to be particularly useful for traditional blue-collar workers who use mobile devices to access real-time information, such as those in the rail transport, emergency services, health care and air-travel industries, says Appear CEO Xavier Aubrey.

Fresh approach for salespeople

Presence is another logical starting point for context-aware mobility, especially as enterprises look at extending unified communications to mobile workers, Gartner's Clark says.

In April, enterprise mobility company Agito released a new version of its RoamAnywhere Mobility Router that features automatic location and context-enhanced presence functionality. RoamAnywhere Presence integrates with enterprise presence servers, including Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007. It lets mobile workers determine the presence for any employee, including those at their desks, using the native Microsoft Communicator application, the company says.

“As you mobilize applications, you can't just shrink-wrap them and throw them on a phone; you've got to add context,” says Christian Gilby, product marketing director at Agito.

At Anthony Marano Co., a large, nationwide produce distributor, enterprise mobility is all about being able to support voice calls in or out of the company's distribution center seamlessly as users move from Wi-Fi to cell coverage. Salespeople live and die by the phone, as they barter with suppliers and negotiate with customers on which fruits and vegetables they'll buy or sell and at what price points, explains Chris Nowak, chief technology officer at the Chicago-based company.

They also rely heavily on the call transfer feature, forwarding customers from one sales rep to another depending on what type of produce a grocery store or food service company needs that day. Now, with the “cool new context-aware component,” salespeople no longer have to blindly transfer those calls from their cell phones.

From the Agito client software running on their phones, salespeople can set up buddy lists. With the presence feature, users now immediately see who is already on a call and who is available. They can also tell if that contact is in the building, in transit or working at home but hooked into the building Wi-Fi network using Agito's Secure Remote Voice feature.

“Our salespeople have to make decisions quickly because they're dealing with fresh produce, and now they're better able to judge what to do with a call based on presence,” Nowak says.

Presence comes in handy beyond voice, too. As an example, Gartner's Clark describes a health care scenario in which presence could help quicken time to diagnosis and, therefore, treatment. Say that while conducting tests, a radiologist determines that a patient has an anomaly that other team members need to know about ASAP. From his presence-enabled buddy list application, he can see that three of the four doctors working on the case are tied up. Location information shows him the closest workstation to the one available doctor, so he shoots off his report to that machine and sends an instant message alerting the doctor to take a look.

“The whole goal is taking a business process that's about to occur and making that as smooth as can be,” Clark says.

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