hand, assert that the real relationship lies between time and space. But,
as it turns out, they both are right.
As organizations find new ways to use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to
cut distances traveled, they wind up saving both time and money. In fact,
they may even wind up saving lives.
”When you are dealing with a potential bioterrorism event, minutes can
make a difference in terms of whether you can save peoples’ lives,” says
Mark Smith, Ph.D., epidemiologist for the Guilford County, N.C. Health
Smith was the project coordinator for Rapid Response Project 516, funded
by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) under the
Bioterrorism Act of 2002. The project developed field survey techniques
to quickly track down disease sources. These techniques incorporate
GPS-enabled handhelds and laptops, together with Geographic Information
System (GIS) applications and data.
Fortunately, it hasn’t been needed yet to counter a bioterrorism attack.
But it was utilized in 2004 during an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease
at a manufacturing plant. Smith’s mobile GIS team conducted surveys in
the area to help out another team that used a paper-based system. As the
results came in, scientists uploaded electronic survey data directly into
”The CDC epidemiologists pulled up the data immediately and followed up
on cases in real-time as the data came in,” says Smith. ”We heard three
weeks later that the paper survey was still sitting on someone’s desk.”
From NAVSTAR to OnStar
While currently best known as a driving and fishing aid, GPS was
originally a military navigation system called the NAVSTAR GPS. The
President Ronald Reagan ordered it be made available for commercial use
after Soviet fighters shot down Korean Air Flight 007 (a Boeing 747
carrying 269 passengers and crew) when it strayed into Russian air space.
GPS consists of three elements — a fleet of satellites (at least 24 at a
time), ground-based control centers and user receivers.
The satellites orbit the earth twice a day at an elevation of 11,000
miles, emitting a continuous signal containing the satellite’s time and
position. The user devices then analyze the signals from three or more
satellites to determine the device’s precise location. Early systems
provided accuracy to within about 70 feet. Further enhancements can bring
that number down to within one centimeter, even while the receiver is
In addition to the U.S. system, the Russian military has its own version,
called GLONASS, and the European Union plans to have a 30-satellite
Galileo Positioning System operational by 2008.
The science behind GPS systems is impressive but, as with other types of
technology, the real value lies in the applications — and they are
getting more sophisticated all the time. The Indian Institute of
Technology in Bombay, for example, is using GPS sensors to detect the
movement of a dam in a seismically active area. The Alaska Railroad
Corporation has incorporated GPS into its train collision avoidance
system. Utilities use GPS-enabled devices from St.Paul, Minn.-based 3M
Corp. to locate and map underground cables, wires and pipes. Biologists
use the devices to track migratory animals. John Deere and Company of
Moline, Ill. uses GPS guidance systems in self-steering tractors.
Then, of course, there are the ubiquitous automobile onboard navigation
systems, such as GM’s OnStar.
Space Equals Time Equals Money
While, perhaps not as exotic as those uses listed above, some of the more
sophisticated GPS deployments are designed to maximize the productivity
of mobile workers.
According to a October 2005 report from IDC, a major industry research
firm based in Framingham, Mass., there were 650 million mobile workers
worldwide in 2004. By 2009, that figure will rise to more than 850
million — greater than one-quarter of the total workforce. It costs
businesses money every minute those workers are moving rather than
working. And GPS is the tool of preference when it comes to minimizing
such ‘work breaks’.
Sears Holdings Corp. of Hoffman Estates, Ill., for example, recently
implemented a new system to optimize routes for its 11,000 field service
technicians. Called the Sears Smart Toolbox, Sears and Environmental
Systems Research Institute, Inc. (ESRI) of Redlands, Calif, co-developed
the applications. Each service vehicle contains a GPS, satellite and
cellular communications system, as well as a wireless LAN access point.
It also contains a ruggedized laptop from Itronix, a part of General
Dynamics Corp. of Falls Church, Va.
The system downloads the technician’s daily work schedule to the laptop.
Once the vehicle is in motion, the laptop switches to navigation mode,
giving the driver verbal turn-by-turn directions to the next job site.
”Technicians don’t have to look at maps, don’t have to call the
customers for directions and don’t get lost,” says Dave Lewis, ESRI’s
project manager for the Sears installation. ”When you are talking about
11,000 technicians, even if you save them 10 minutes a day, it is a huge
The system also reports in to the backend server when the technician
arrives at the work site. The tech then takes the laptop into the
building where he is working as it contains service documentation. And if
additional information is needed or the worker needs to order parts, the
laptop connects via wireless LAN to other equipment in the truck, which
uses a satellite or cellular connection to download the required data
from the servers at headquarters.
The system also tracks each technician’s progress throughout the day and
can adjust schedules and routes as needed when jobs take longer than
Go to the next page to find out how GPS helped save lives after a major hurricane.
In the case of Smith’s Rapid Response Team, the goal was to cut down the
time it took to conduct a Rapid Needs Assessment (RNA) — a methodology
developed by the CDC and the World Health Organization to gather data on
health needs during disasters. They also need to get the work done
without assistance from CDC headquarters or other external bodies.
As was clearly demonstrated in the days following Hurricane Katrina,
disaster responses must first be a local action. Communities can’t wait
for the federal government to arrive on the scene.
Smith contracted with Bradshaw Consulting Services, Inc. (BCS) of Aiken,
S.C., to install and configure appropriate hardware, develop customized
data collection forms and train users. This GPS combo consists of HP’s
iPaq or Dell Axim X50V handhelds running Windows and a laptop. The
handhelds also include a GPS card from GlobalSat. The applications and
forms utilize several ESRI products, including ArcPad and ArcGIS.
A typical scenario might involve 10 or more teams going out into the
field with handhelds, each connected to a laptop field computer at the
staging area. The survey teams would be guided by the GPS/GIS to the
appropriate locations to conduct the interviews. The surveys
automatically include the GPS coordinates for the location, so surveyors
don’t have to determine the address and fill it in. They then return to
the base station to upload the survey information from the laptop.
”We can do the analysis right there in the field if we need to,” says
Smith. ”But if we have a wireless phone card in the laptop, we can
access the server at the state capital so our state epidemiologists can
analyze the data themselves in real time.”
Joey Wilson, BCS’s mobile technologies manager, says GPS really proved
itself this fall when the CDC requested help conducting an RNA in Florida
following Hurricane Wilma. Within 24 hours of deployment, interviewers
were trained and on the ground.
”The interviewers came from North Carolina, but GPS helped them go
directly to locations around an unfamiliar city without lost time,” says
As a result they were able to conduct more than 300 interviews in less
than three days and digitally transfer the data to the CDC. This cut the
time the CDC needed to calculate the needs for 150,000 people in the area
from several weeks to a matter of days.
”The CDC had been developing its own in-house questionnaire application,
but it didn’t include a GPS component,” Wilson adds. ”Now they are
aware of how valuable locational awareness is and how much time it saves