What Is A Geofence And Why You Should Care?

It seems like every day, I get to learn about some new technology that has the possibility to reshape how I see the world, work with data, or get something done much more easily. As a web developer, I’m very familiar with geofences and have applied them in working applications, but I wanted to introduce the concept to those of you who are unfamiliar with it.

Geofence example

What Is A Geofence?

Wikipedia has this to say about geofences:

A Geofence is a virtual perimeter on a geographic area using a location-based service, so that when the geofencing device enters or exits the area a notification is generated. The notification can contain information about the location of the device and might be sent to a mobile telephone or an email account.

Although I think they’re pretty close, I’d like to add that a geofence is really just the area that is defined for a notification trigger (or other event) and the notification isn’t exactly part of the geofence. As an example, you might have a device in your car that is linked to a service and that service has a geofence (that you defined) around your neighborhood. On your way to work the service detects that you’ve exited the geofence (your neighborhood), and shuts off specific devices in your home through a home automation system. When you re-enter the geofence after work, it sends a text message to your wife that reads, “Honey, I’m (almost) home!” or turns on your laptop.

Practical Uses For Geofences

I know the above example may seem a little Jetsons-like, but the technology is actually here today and already in use.

One real-world example is the annual Iron Dog® snowmobile race in Alaska. It wasn’t long after the race began that the first team entered a checkpoint and like many other people, I received a text message on my phone letting me know about it. Making this happen was software developed by Ontec Technologies, the company that has provided real-time tracking and mapping of each racer for the past few years. In the software, every checkpoint was defined as a geofence and each racer was outfitted with hardware from Applied Satellite Engineering that sent data over the Iridium satellite network to Ontec where it gets mapped and triggers alerts for geofences. In this example, friends, families, and fans were able to know very rapidly as their racer hit each checkpoint.

The article, Searching for Real Estate Made Easy: Geo-Fences Plus Mobile Phones from SoftwareAdvice.com describes, in detail, a scenario in which a young couple on a leisurely stroll is alerted that they’re near a home for sale that they may like. It seems the couple’s tech-savvy realtor entered their search criteria and cell phone number into a system that has geofences around properties and when their phone’s GPS location entered the geofence, it triggered an alert. The story is just a made-up scenario, but the reality of such a service is just over the horizon. We already have the technology in the phones and all it will take is for someone to build an app for the iPhone, Android, and Windows Mobile 7 and the web service to pair it with.

The practical uses for geofences are numerous and I’m certain we’ll see them in use more and more. Imagine an alert on your phone when your young child wanders off your property, or a friend is near the coffee house you’re sitting at. A system that turns on a couple lights when I get within 50 yards of my house is entirely possible right now with a little hardware and some programming.

Possible problems

Any really good technology that makes use of your personal location information brings with it concerns about misuse of that information. However, if used with consent and in the proper applications with these concerns in mind, the advantages far outweigh the unlikely possibilities of misuse.

If you could geofences for anything, what would it be?

Disclosure: I am a part owner/founder in Ontec.