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'Where' Matters: Shaping Public Services for the Mobile Citizen

Advertisers aren't the only ones that can benefit from mobile devices' location-based services. The technology gives government an opportunity to deliver public services in remarkable new ways.

What's one of the most reported-on--yet least understood--transformational technologies for public services to citizens? Hint: It's at the center of a new "location arms race" involving Apple, Google and other technology companies. Answer: location-based services, made possible by a combination of geospatial technologies and mobile devices. And while the media is focused on the map, the real story is the value of location-based data. For service providers and advertisers, where someone is located is as important, if not more important, than who they are.

Three-quarters of U.S. smartphone owners use location-based services, according to a recent study, and every interaction teaches the entity providing the service about its user community. By building a large dataset of users' locations, search habits and preferences, mobile search providers like Google and Apple or social networks like Foursquare and Facebook can customize an experience that users enjoy almost as much as advertisers do.

The secret to customization is "context"--combining a history of someone's preferences with the preferences of thousands of other individuals who are searching for the same route or restaurant from the same place you're standing.

The public sector has a similar opportunity to customize services for citizens and employees by engaging with the growing wealth of location-based data. Many governments possess a robust GIS capability, but it's typically far removed from day-to-day interactions with citizens. As these geospatial technologies transition to Web applications, cloud-based sharing will allow agency managers to incorporate location data into decision-making. The result is government interacting with citizens, and its own employees, in entirely new ways:

Open infrastructure mapping: Maps organize massive amounts of data around a common attribute or location, and they provide a starting point for discussing tough decisions with citizens and other government stakeholders. In New York City, a partnership between the mayor's office and Columbia University led to the development of a digital model that shows the manner in which nearly every building in the city consumes energy, distinguishing among heating, lighting and other purposes.

Seeing the relationship between energy use and community design can help policymakers and the public alike understand how energy usage relates to social and environmental factors.

Passive data collection: To map data, governments must gather it. Take the city of Boston's Street Bump. Rather than asking you to photograph potholes, it only asks you to leave your smartphone on while driving. By collecting information from the phone's sensors, the software passively collects geotagged vibrations and uploads the data into a system that aggregates the bumps users felt. The result is a continuously updating map of the city's roadways. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, the city's previous approach was dragging heavy chains from the backs of trucks at a cost of $200,000 per year; with Street Bump, the investment was $80,000 for a few app developers.

Geofenced push notifications: Government is the authority on political boundaries, but what about information boundaries? The latest generation of mobile applications can respond to "geofences," which are invisible lines around a particular location that prompt an action from a device. The applications for government are numerous--authorities can automatically push traffic alerts or safety notices to the phones of nearby citizens or passively mine open-source social data within a particular area to gather situational awareness about an incident.

Context-based asset management: Making the best use of government resources is critical in a budget-constrained environment. San Francisco's public transit system is transitioning away from paper bus transfers to an RFID card. The city's Municipal Transportation Agency can now assess average commute times, passenger density and popular travel hours by neighborhood and adjust bus routes accordingly.

By learning from use patterns of public assets ranging from vehicle fleets to hospital equipment, agencies can be more thoughtful about where and when to deploy resources. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is pursuing a real-time location system at several hospitals in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan. By placing RFID tags and barcodes on several hundred thousand items, from small surgical instruments to medical devices, the V.A. can monitor inventory levels, ensure that sensitive instruments have been properly stored, and allow physicians and employees to operate more efficiently.

The possibilities for government to incorporate location intelligence into decision making are limitless - but don't necessarily have to be government solutions. Take the mobile app iTriage. Built by private citizens and recently acquired by Aetna, iTriage uses information from federal open datasets about the locations of health services to help citizens find care nearby. It has since been downloaded more than 6 million times. Cost to taxpayers: zero.

Governments at every level stand to benefit from the convergence of geospatial technologies and location-based services. For agency executives, capturing data from social media and location-based applications offers a more detailed and nuanced dataset than traditional GIS and demographic data, leading to better policymaking and program delivery. At the same time, the more data agencies collect, the better and more contextually aware location-based services become for citizens and employees. The result? Better communication, more efficient allocation of public resources and the ability to rethink the way public services are delivered.

This column is adapted from a Deloitte GovLab study, "The Power of Zoom: Transforming Government Through Location Intelligence."

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