Heading in the right direction
Phil Allen, CEO of New Zealand's own GeoSmart, has been in the mapping game since 1979 and is going from strength to strength. He talks with Jan Birkeland about mapping everything from sea, air and land to encouraging employees to work on holiday.
How did it all start out for you?
I am New Zealand born and I did a bachelor of surveying at Otago in the end of the 1970s, along with a stage-two computer science course. After uni I worked around two-and-a-half years surveying in the project industry. In 1982 I went to Singapore to work on hydrographics, or offshore oil development, for Geomex Surveys. I was based in Singapore but did work in China, India and Oman as well.
Hydrographics — how does that work?
Basically you run long cables behind a boat, measuring the sea floor and developing a 3D map from that. This can in turn be used to find potential spots for offshore drilling. I spent a lot of time in a boat during those years. I was young and single and it was a great opportunity for me that included lots of travelling.
I came back to New Zealand in 1987 and started work for Babbage Geosite and later Babbage Mapping, until 1990. In 1990 I became general manager of Air Logistics, the company that would later transform into GeoSmart. At this stage I had moved from surveying land, then sea and finally I did surveying from the air. I changed how Air Logistics did their business, and we became the first 3D mapping company in Australasia.
When you started with Air Logistics, did you have a fair idea where you were going to take it?
Absolutely. The idea was to grow this business from the corporate mapping market and into the consumer market. We spent ten years mapping New Zealand, including countless hours of flying. We also drove every road there was to drive, in order to get the most accurate mapping possible. We changed the name to GeoSmart in 2003 and picked up some major accounts like AA, Wises and the Department of Conservation. A year later we moved into car navigation and secured deals with Navman GPS and Siemens. As well as introducing explicit physical turning restrictions to prevent cars from turning in the wrong places, we use implicit turn restrictions as well. This means that if there is a dangerous intersection, or our drivers have decided it would be dangerous to do a U-turn on a specific stretch of road, the GPS will inform you of that.
In 2004 we picked up another big account with Vodafone and moved into SmartFind, which enabled the user to get directions from his or her cellphone via the Live service.
What’s next on the mapping front for you?
Our immediate focus now is on SmartFind Webmapping, which we have released with AA. It is free to use and adds detail to maps such as toilets, businesses and points of interest for tourists. It can be customised for websites and businesses, adding their own layers and points of interest as well. It also has the ability of tracking vehicles for a courier fleet, for example. We even have clients who will use it to track pets. The product uses both GPS and also wi-fi, as GPS can be obstructed by buildings and surroundings, whereas wi-fi can be used inside buildings as well.
We see a lot of convergence in web-mapping technologies, in essence combining different products into a complete package. We also have mapping projects in places like the Middle East and India, and there is always the thought of moving more business overseas. We have a lot of credibility overseas based on our brand portfolio and technology, and we are known for our tools and quality of mapping. We have some great staff working for us and we even have incentives for them to map for us while they’re on holiday. It pretty much means they just bring along a GPS and take note of intersections and points of interest.
What’s the newest product on offer?
Our newest product is called Invite2Go, a web-based program that will let end-users or businesses send out invites ranging from meetings to parties. With this program you can send invites out that can include a picture of the venue or person you will be meeting, a detailed map and driving instructions on how to get there and an easier way to RSVP to invites. It can be used for any number of people, and it is free of charge if you send out five invites or less. We are focusing on end-users. As of this year consumers are by far representing the biggest part of our market. This is a trend that we see continuing, although we still hold major contracts with corporations such as Transit New Zealand.
When you get home from work, I assume you don’t run straight out to map your surroundings?
Not exactly, I own a lifestyle farm in Dairy Flat. Although I don’t come from a farming background I love spending time outside. I also play golf, not so much for the love of the game but for the opportunity to spend time out in nature. I also enjoy a good wine and listening to jazz.