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m.logistics Magazine | Mar/April 2009 | It's all in the context

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It's all in the context
Xavier Aubry, Appear Networks: 'The context-aware platform uses situational information (the context) to ensure users have the right information when they need it without risking information overload'

Are 'context-aware' mobility platforms the next big thing? Sharon Clancy finds out more about how they can deliver efficiencies in even the most complex operations

Most of us have suffered flight delays caused by passengers going missing between check-in and gate, or waiting for baggage or catering to be loaded on to the plane. It's annoying, but if you think about the myriad tasks that have to happen in order to get a plane, its passengers and crew in the air, it is perhaps more surprising that aircraft ever leave on time.

It is this type of critical real-time operation, where mobile voice and data intermingle, that 'context-aware' mobile applications are targeting.

Proponents reckon that this technology revolutionises the way information is delivered, received and presented on mobile devices. Context-aware systems know about their environment or situation, and respond intelligently in real time on the basis of that awareness.

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Mobile users no longer need to know what they are looking for; instead, the context-aware platform analyses each user's situation (context) and determines what information the user needs. It decides what data, voice or video needs to be delivered in real time, on the job.

This is why they are seen as particularly appropriate for environments such as public transport, where processes and operations are complex, and involve multiple communication and task layers: operations where the failure of one aspect can have live repercussions for everything else.

'Having too much information can be as frustrating for the operation as too little,' says Xavier Aubry, chief executive of Appear Networks, a pioneer of context-aware middleware platforms. 'Mobile workers need to have relevant, filtered information pushed to them rather than actively searching for it.

Avoiding information overload

'The context-aware platform uses situational information to ensure users have the right information when they need it without risking information overload.'

Context can include geographical position, device type, time and date, access rights for groups of workers, available bandwidth and process status.

Sequential workflows involving paper and voice can be replaced by a collaborative context-aware workflow based on explicit input from the user, explains Aubry. 'The platform collects and shares context among users while the mobile interface focuses on usability.'

Data networks can be transformed into multimedia channels including voice, video and messaging. Data communication allows for clarity of the operational position, and time stamps provide an audit trail for analysis and improvement.

Appear IQ incorporates a set of pre-determined filters such as job responsibilities, physical location, time and device type. Working in real time, Appear IQ identifies the mission-critical data and applications that are relevant to each mobile employee, and then pushes these resources to the user's handheld device.

Functions such as device management, file synchronisation, over-the-air push data and data security are incorporated as standard. There is an enhanced administration interface and multiple proxy configurations. Context support is also provided for external applications, along with a 'service bootstrap' on the client device.

Most users of Appear IQ to date have been public utilities, including the Stockholm and Paris metros, Dutch Rail and Stockholm airport, but Xavier Aubry believes it also has potential in any situation where it is crucial that information be collected and accessed in real time, including hospitals.

The company has just secured a contract with SITA, the specialist airline IT provider, and Appear reports that Stockholm airport has become the first in the world to deploy a context-aware platform.

SITA is piloting the application with airlines in Sweden, Portugal and the Netherlands. The hosted context-aware test platform is able to support multiple mobile application scenarios including passenger and baggage processing and aircraft and airport operation.

On-demand access

It will provide 'on demand' access over wireless and mobile networks, tackle information overload, and allow airlines, ground handlers and airport customers to escape dependence on manual processes, voice communications and back-office reporting.

For example, the switch from paper-based systems to handheld mobile computers will allow a single duty manager to handle four to five aircraft turnrounds, rather than the present arrangement of one manager to each aircraft turnround.

One airline is projecting double-digit reductions in aircraft line maintenance intervention time, while remote management of diesel-powered aircraft heaters and other ground service equipment is predicted to save fuel for ground handling companies and boost efficiencies.

Greg Ouillon, SITA vice-president for innovation, sums up the appeal. 'As mobile devices, networks and applications became ubiquitous,' he says, 'the last and most important piece of the technology ecosystem required by SITA was to provide a common-use platform to allow on-demand mobility services at any airport.'

'Appear's context-aware middleware is a fundamental building block of this new offer, and enables SITA to provide a range of wireless applications to different stakeholders over a single common-use multi-service architecture.'


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