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What is geofencing? Putting location to work

What is geofencing? Putting location to work

Geofencing is a service that triggers an action when a device enters a set location. Coupons, notifications, engagement features, security alerts — businesses are finding creative ways to make use of these virtual boundaries.

What is geofencing?

Geofencing is a location-based service in which an app or other software uses GPS, RFID, Wi-Fi or cellular data to trigger a pre-programmed action when a mobile device or RFID tag enters or exits a virtual boundary set up around a geographical location, known as a geofence.  

Depending on how a geofence is configured it can prompt mobile push notifications, trigger text messages or alerts, send targeted advertisements on social media, allow tracking on vehicle fleets, disable certain technology or deliver location-based marketing data.

Some geofences are set up to monitor activity in secure areas, allowing management to see alerts when anyone enters or leaves a specific area. Businesses can also use geofencing to monitor employees in the field, automate time cards and keep track of company property.

How geofencing works

To make use of geofencing, an administrator or developer must first establish a virtual boundary around a specified location in GPS- or RFID-enabled software. This can be as simple as a circle drawn 100 feet around a location on Google Maps, as specified using APIs when developing a mobile app. This virtual geofence will then trigger a response when an authorized device enters or exits that area, as specified by the administrator or developer.

A geofence is most commonly defined within the code of a mobile application, especially since users need to opt-in to location services for the geofence to work. If you go to a concert venue, they might have an app you can download that will deliver information about the event. Or, a retailer might draw a geofence around its outlets to trigger mobile alerts for customers who have downloaded the retailer’s mobile app. In these cases, a geofence that is managed by the retailer is programmed into the app, and users can opt to decline location access for the app.

A geofence can also be set up by end-users using geofencing capabilities in their mobile apps. These apps, such as iOS Reminders, allow you to choose an address or location where you want to trigger a specific alert or push notification. This is called an “if this, then that” command, where an app is programmed to trigger an action based off another action. For example, “If I’m five feet from my front door, turn on my lights.” Or you might ask a reminder app to send you an alert once you reach a specific location.

Geofencing isn’t just for mobile apps – it’s used to control and track vehicles in the shipping industry, cattle in agriculture industry and – you’ll see this topic pop up in drone discussions. Nearly every drone is pre-programmed to accommodate geofencing, which are usually set up around airports, open-air venues and even the White House. The FAA can set up these drone-resistant geofences upon request – some barriers will stop a drone in mid-air, while others will trigger a warning message to the user. Some drone geofences will ask for a users’ authorization – a process that ties the user’s identity to their drone – so that law enforcement can keep track on unmanned drones.

Geofencing applications

With the rising popularity of mobile devices, geofencing has become a standard practice for plenty of businesses. Once a geographic area has been defined, the opportunities are seemingly endless for what companies can do, and it has become especially popular in marketing and social media.

Some retail and hospitality businesses will set up geofences around their competition, so when you approach the boundary, you’ll get a push notification prompting you to visit the other establishment. Or, you might walk into a retail store and see a coupon pushed to your device. If you download a grocery app, chances are it will register when you drive by to prompt an alert, trying to get you to stop in.

Here are other common geofencing applications:

  • Social networking: One of the most recognizable uses for geofencing comes in the form of popular social networking apps — most notably, Snapchat. Location-based filters, stickers and other shareable content are all made possible with geofencing. Whether you’re using a promoted filter at a concert, using a custom-made filter for a friend’s birthday or uploading to public, location-based stories, it’s all thanks to these virtual perimeters.
  • Marketing: Besides social networking, geofencing is also a popular way for businesses to deliver in-store promotions, alerting you right as you step in range of the store. Geofencing also helps businesses target ads to a specific audience to figure out what strategies work best based off user’s location-data.
  • Audience engagement: Geofencing is used to engage crowds of people at organized events, like concerts, festivals, fairs and more. For example, a concert venue might use a geofence to crowdsource social media posts or deliver information about the venue or event.
  • Smart appliances: As more of our appliances get “smart,” with Bluetooth capabilities, it’s easier than ever to program your fridge to remind you that you’re out of milk the next time you pass by the grocery store. Or you can make sure the thermostat is set to the perfect temperature when you get home from work by using a geofence.
  • Human resources: Some companies rely on geofencing for monitoring employees, especially workers who spend time off-site doing field work. It’s also an easy way to automate time cards, clocking employees in and out as they come and go.
  • Telematics: Geofencing can also be helpful with telematics, allowing companies to draw virtual zones around sites, work areas and secure areas. They can be triggered by a vehicle or a person and send alerts or warnings to the operator.
  • Security: Geofencing might seem invasive — and it certainly has the potential to sometimes feel like an overreach depending on how it’s used. However, geofencing can also be used to bring more security to your mobile device. For example, you can set your phone to unlock when you’re home using a geofence or to get alerts when someone enters the house or leaves.

The future of geofencing

There are some cautions with geofencing, especially when it comes to privacy with marketing. Just this past year, Massachusetts was one of the first states to enact a consumer protection law that objected to the use of location-based advertising.

The Attorney General blocked an ad campaign from Copley Advertising, which was hired by a Christian organization to set up a geofence around women’s health clinics that would target women in the waiting room or nearby with anti-abortion ads.

However, despite questions about security, it doesn’t seem that geofencing will lose its popularity any time soon. According to a press release from MarketsandMarkets, the geofencing industry is expected to grow over 27 percent by 2022, citing “technological advancements in use of spatial data and increasing applications in numerous industry verticals.”

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