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Location of things: Why location matters in IoT

When a concept is as far-reaching as the Internet of Things (IoT) — involving literally billions of elements — we need principles for organizing and making sense of the data it communicates.

That’s where an emerging IoT subcategory known the “location of things” comes into play. Location is a vital dimension of the IoT concept that encompasses the ability of “things” to sense and communicate their geographic position. In this context, location acts as an organizing principle for anything connected to the Internet.

With more and more “things” connecting to the Internet, the amount of data coming in is overwhelming. We need filters to pull out the data that is valuable for us. We are all interested in the things that relate most closely to our context — whether personally or for our work. Location is the key to context.

The birth of what would become the “location of things” dates back more than 20 years, with the introduction of global positioning systems. GPS technology became fully operational in 1995, blazing the way for a new paradigm in positioning. In its earliest uses, GPS helped the U.S. military navigate across the globe with unprecedented precision. By May 2000, the GPS system was opened up to the general public. It then took another decade for GPS receivers to become small enough and affordable enough to find their way into our smartphones.

The breakthroughs afforded by GPS paved way for the location-based services we enjoy each day: Google Maps, Uber, Waze, Foursquare and others. These multi-billion dollar services all were enabled by the ability of a smartphone to locate itself with fair accuracy and precision using GPS technology.

Most importantly, this new standard made it possible to move beyond the concept that only people could know where things were located. The world opened up when “things” had the capacity to know where other “things” are located.

In all of this, location simply acts as a search engine for geographic data. Before we had Internet search engines, users had to know what they were looking for — perhaps down to the precise URL to the webpage they needed. Then along came Google and other engines to do the work for us. And just as Google and the others help pinpoint data, location data helps organize the billions of internet-connected devices by location based on the sensors and other location-centric elements in them.

What this all means is GPS is just one part of “location-based services” or LBS. Lots of our devices and sensors — along with other assets, people and content — are inside buildings, where GPS has no real reach. That’s where indoor positioning systems (IPS) are creating the next big buzz within the location of things. As IPS technology continues to be enhanced and as more apps that harness its power become available, we’ll see a slew of new data becoming part of the location of things.

With IPS, the position data gathered can help in everything from finding devices and equipment, step-by-step navigation of indoor spaces such as shopping malls, helping with logistics in warehouses, enabling geofencing around sensitive data, assisting in social interactions and more.

What will happen when everything knows its location? Watch for future columns from me, where I’ll explore how the location of things will impact and change our lives in a near future. Here’s a hint: finding “things” is just the tip of the iceberg.

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