Nº 9 2013 > Technology Watch

Location matters
Spatial standards for the Internet of Things

 Location matters Spatial standards for the Internet of Things

Getting Location anywhere

Spatial information — knowing our precise and accurate location — can be useful wherever we are and whatever we are doing. Increasingly, we get our spatial information via the Internet (see chart), and the Internet’s connection to the real world depends on open spatial standards.

This article is drawn from Location matters: Spatial standards for the Internet of Things, a Technology Watch report published by ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU–T) in September 2013. The report looks at global efforts to weave different sources and formats of spatial information together so that they can enhance our experience of the natural and built environment. It was written by the Open Geospatial Consortium, in collaboration with ITU. The Open Geospatial Consortium brings together more than 475 companies, government agencies, research organizations and universities to develop open standards for the communication of spatial information.

Today all new smartphones are location-enabled through onboard Global Positioning System (GPS) chips. Mobile devices that can report their location to applications play leading roles in fields as diverse as transport, emergency response, disaster management, environmental sampling, meteorological and oceanographic research, municipal and utility maintenance operations, and location marketing.

The need for common standards

Like text, imagery and video, spatial data require their own collections of standards — with different standards for geospatial data referenced to the Earth’s surface and engineering data referenced to, for example, a building’s engineering coordinate system.

Standards enable communication of spatial data between software systems. When your smartphone responds to your request for a street address, or when a disaster-response centre sends a warning to phones and television sets in the path of a tornado, a stack of standards defined by a variety of standards organizations comes into play.

The spatial standards community is concerned with the consistent encoding of location data and the use of well-defined, consistent service interfaces for finding, accessing and invoking location-based services and associated data. These standards come into play, for example, when a web browser accepts your waypoints to create a map showing the route you have taken, or when it overlays that map on an Earth image or a three-dimensional contour map.

Spatial processing complexity

Communicating simple latitude-longitude coordinates is not complex, but computers expect consistency. To ensure interoperability in the service stack, a standard is required. Geography Markup Language (GML) and Open GeoSMS define rules, such as coordinate order (latitude then longitude); whether these numbers are to be expressed as floating-point numbers or degrees, minutes or seconds; whether coordinates are separated by a comma or a space; and accuracy considerations (see map).

There are many Earth coordinate reference systems in use today. It is therefore critical to specify the coordinate reference systems, for example, the World Geodetic System (WGS) in its latest revision, WGS 84 2d. Improper expression and use of a coordinate reference system can introduce a serious positional error in the coordinate.

GML is part of the interoperability platform that enables a single software program to control and access data from multiple Earth-imaging devices, for example, on satellites. GML is embedded in international encoding standards for domains such as weather, aviation, hydrology, geology, augmented reality, and emergency response.

Open GeoSMS facilitates the communication of location content in short message service (SMS) transmissions. SMS is a feature in every mobile phone — all mobile phones therefore have the potential to communicate location information in a standard way.

Geospatial standards must meet many interoperability requirements beyond defining a way to express a latitude-longitude coordinate. Standards define and provide consistent ways to exchange and process Earth-referenced data that may be encoded using grid cells, vectors, polygons or other methods of representing Earth features and phenomena.

Information products, such as maps provided by map browsers or turn-by-turn directions provided by navigation devices, are the result of complex operations involving diverse spatial databases, analytical engines and display functions. Interoperability is essential because in today’s web-services environment these operations are more commonly performed on distributed systems than on a single computer. These distributed systems must interoperate to support complex geospatial value chains.

Standardization gaps

While GML and related standards give smartphone app developers access to extraordinary geospatial resources, critical gaps remain. One glaring gap is between indoor and outdoor location systems. Users accustomed to easy and accurate outdoor navigation expect a seamless transition when moving indoors, but as yet there are only limited environments in which this is possible.

Things in the Internet of Things all have location, and usually their locations matter. Where a sensing device is located in a building is highly relevant to applications that use data from that sensor. Access to accurate building information — not just floor plans — is becoming increasingly important. Standards are needed to provide building information, such as the location of devices, throughout a building’s lifecycle. Perhaps a majority of the devices in the emerging smart grid will be user-owned devices inside and on top of buildings, rather than utility-owned devices in outdoor electric power transmission and distribution networks.

Location-based service technologies

Location-based services require three basic kinds of technology and standards: network communication; position determination; and spatial analysis and portrayal. For most location-based service applications, network communication is provided by the wireless communication infrastructure that supports cell phones.

Internet connectivity enables location-based services to take advantage of everything available through the World Wide Web: search, video and videoconferencing, music, social networking, file sharing, shopping, advertising and more. Phones designed for Internet protocol (smartphones) have opened the door to apps that leverage both Internet-resident resources (the cloud) and the phones’ extraordinary processing power, sensors and graphical user interfaces to provide unprecedented capabilities, many of them location-based.

Disaster management and response

Wireless networks are invaluable in emergencies and disasters, not only because cellular networks are more disaster-resistant than wired networks, but also because timing data collected at the transmitter sites can be used to calculate and report cell phone location, even if people’s phones do not have GPS. In recent years, crowdsourcing and volunteered geographic information have emerged as major factors in disaster management.

In the interests of providing more widely accessible disaster-relief location information, a number of volunteer organizations have developed open-source social media, crowdsourcing and user-generated content applications. For example, the Sahana platform for disaster management was created in response to the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that hit several countries including Sri Lanka. The Ushahidi map visualization application for crowdsourcing the collection of crisis information was developed to map reports of post-election violence in Kenya in 2007/2008. Sinsai.info, a crisis-mapping site that used the Ushahidi platform in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake, was launched four hours after the earthquake occurred. GeoSMS-enabled software is available for Android and used by Sahana and Ushahidi. It provides for communication between victims and rescue teams and sends location updates to Sahana for relief and rescue coordination.

Smart infrastructure

Efforts towards smart grid standards have been led primarily by electrical engineers thinking in terms of network topologies — which device is connected to which device — rather than where the devices are located in a city or a building. But the location of these devices often matters. Transport is undoubtedly the domain where industry and consumers make the most use of location-based services. GPS has revolutionized way-finding for drivers worldwide and created a new market niche for transport data and service providers. Corporations and governments use location-based services to realize significant improvements in logistical efficiencies, maintenance and the tracking of their fleets of vehicles. The field of intelligent transport systems goes beyond the reach of today’s GPS services to encompass a range of new capabilities related to traffic safety, reductions in congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, and auto-pilot capabilities for vehicles. In transport, as in other domains, the seamless exchange of geospatial information between platforms and applications requires a coherent framework of geospatial standards.

Trends to watch in location-based services

The market value of location-based services comes not only from the number of devices that are connected, but also from the number of spatial datasets that can be quickly discovered, accessed and used. The global implementation and use of existing geospatial standards makes a huge amount of spatial data available to applications. The value of an Earth browser such as Google Earth, Bing Maps or WebGL Earth is enhanced significantly if the browser is capable of processing KML (formerly Keyhole Markup Language) data. KML is an encoding standard that enables a user’s unique spatial data to be displayed on top of the map provided by an Earth browser.

Pervasiveness: The number of people using mobile phones continues to rise, as does the percentage of mobile devices with Internet access and location awareness. The cost of Internet access is decreasing and the percentage of the electromagnetic spectrum allotted to wireless Internet is increasing. Improvements in electronics are expanding the options for efficient use of spectrum through such means as dynamic spectrum access technologies. The relatively new WiMAX-Advanced and LTE-Advanced standards have led to new opportunities in broadband wireless access, building on different widely adopted technologies. The Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) is in operation, and the European Galileo satellite navigation system on the horizon. All of these trends will support continuing growth of location-based services for the foreseeable future.

Interactivity: In popular terms, broadband refers to bits per second, and the average number of bits per second available to mobile applications continues its upward trend. Broadband also refers to the number of channels that a connection can support simultaneously, and possibilities for interactivity thus increase in line with the number of channels. Interactivity in a complex location-based service application might involve frequent updates of location data and direction-of-view data, while also providing two remote users with live two-way video and audio. It might also, with the movement of a cursor and click of a button, provide a label on selected buildings in the video stream. The market for location-based services has begun a healthy trend by attracting developers to create highly interactive apps for games, learning environments, environmental models, way-finding, shopping and entertainment.

Consumer engagement: In response to consumer demand, 54 per cent of developers working on apps for mobile devices are fitting their apps with location-based and mapping services, according to a survey of more than 400 mobile app developers by Evans Data, an IT industry market research firm. Although some users of location-based services (such as soldiers) are not consumers, and although mobile devices provide many free services, the location-based service market is driven largely by consumers.

Machine-to-machine (M2M) communication: The falling size, cost and energy requirements of sensors and actuators mean that we can expect to see many new applications using location-based services in which people can remotely adjust settings on a device. One example would be setting a thermostat and then letting the device function autonomously by communicating with another system, in this case a heating and cooling system.

Standards landscape

Harmonization of how location content is modelled and encoded through the standards stack for location-based services is critical to ensuring interoperability, ease of implementation, and network effects. The Open Geospatial Consortium is collaborating with ITU Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU–T) Study Group 11 (Signalling requirements, protocols and test specifications) towards formalizing Open GeoSMS as an international standard (ITU–T Recommendation) before the close of 2013. Open GeoSMS uses short message service (SMS) to exchange location-based information and is valuable in providing relief to individuals affected by natural disasters.

Location is particularly relevant to ITU–T standardization work on the Internet of Things, Web of Things, and Ubiquitous Sensor Network. Location is also of integral importance to M2M communications, which is being tackled by the ITU–T Focus Group on M2M Service Layer.

An efficient framework for location-based service standards will usher in tremendous social, economic and environmental benefits. In the next phase of standards development, emphasis will remain on enhancing cooperation between standards-developing organizations, as well as with governments, industry and academia.

Workshop on Internet of Things Trends and Challenges

An ITU Workshop on the Internet of Things Trends and Challenges is scheduled to take place at ITU headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, on 18 February 2014. The workshop is organized in conjunction with several related meetings of the ITU standards groups, such as the Internet of Things Global Standards Initiative on 19–25 February 2014, and the Internet of Things Joint Coordination Activity on 25 February 2014.

The workshop will bring together experts from both industry and academia. It will explore the status of various standards initiatives in the area of the Internet of Things and M2M communications both in ITU and in other standards-developing organizations. A particular focus will be on the progress made in the Internet of Things-related standards and protocols development in academia and the open source community.

The workshop aims to facilitate the expansion of the Internet of Things worldwide through a better understanding of current trends, including a wide range of standardization work, and the challenges that must be overcome in order to adopt globally accepted standards in this area.

Workshop on Internet of Things Trends and Challenges

An ITU Workshop on the Internet of Things Trends and Challenges is scheduled to take place at ITU headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, on 18 February 2014. The workshop is organized in conjunction with several related meetings of the ITU standards groups, such as the Internet of Things Global Standards Initiative on 19–25 February 2014, and the Internet of Things Joint Coordination Activity on 25 February 2014.

The workshop will bring together experts from both industry and academia. It will explore the status of various standards initiatives in the area of the Internet of Things and M2M communications both in ITU and in other standards-developing organizations. A particular focus will be on the progress made in the Internet of Things-related standards and protocols development in academia and the open source community.

The workshop aims to facilitate the expansion of the Internet of Things worldwide through a better understanding of current trends, including a wide range of standardization work, and the challenges that must be overcome in order to adopt globally accepted standards in this area.


 

 

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