New Risk Management Firms Aim To Mainstream Real-time Tracking

By | April 13, 2016

The most common and largely practical way to locate travelers in a crisis is to look at who intended to travel to the area and ping them. Credit card swipe data is another way follow an employee’s path. Potentially even more effective, GPS-based tracking is challenged by privacy concerns and battery drain. However, a relatively new crop of providers is trying to change that. They obscure the location data until it’s needed, streamline messaging and assume that when people want to be tracked, the law allows it.

Does this mean travel itinerary data loses its value? No. Any and all accurate information in a crisis is good information. Having more than one procedure is good, too. One heartbreaking story of the recent Brussels attacks was of the man who sent an “I’m okay” text message to family after the airport bombings. He died about an hour later in the subway bombing. The text- or app-based “check-in” is a commonly used tool by corporations looking to ensure duty of care. But it’s just one of many that could be in the kit.

Would another procedure have saved him? Not necessarily. The point is, it’s hard to put a limit on how much one should do. Better and faster communications could help not only locate employees, but also guide them to safety. Insiders call this situational awareness.


Image: Thinkstock

Real-time tracking has been available for a pretty penny with satellite phones for many years. VIPs and top executives traveling in high-risk areas are the typical corporate users. New providers are looking to bring this type of down-to-the-meter detail to the corporate-travel masses.

They also represent a new appreciation for travel risk management among investors. Venture-funded startups may bring more competition in travel risk management. Competition is rarely bad for customers.

An exception to that startup dynamic is GPS tracking company Vismo, which partners with 30-year-old TRM firm International SOS. Vismo is a division of Cellhire USA and started mobile phone tracking in 2010.

“Prior to the Paris and Brussels attacks, the interest [in GPS tracking] was very much tied to riskier destinations and therefore a subset of clients and a small percentage of their travelers,” according to International SOS EVP Tim Daniel. “Now clients with more mainstream travel are showing an interest. While there hasn’t been a lot of adoption, we do see a trend that suggests clients are expanding the target population to include travelers who are going to lower-risk countries but may be a ‘VIP’ or in some cases the hardcore road warriors. In other words, a sensible expansion that doesn’t attempt an enterprise-wide adoption with all the inherent challenges.”

Track Me, Please And Thank You

Two of the newish providers focus on real-time tracking and charge a license fee for their apps based on volume. Former U.S. military officers and corporate security personnel in 2013 separately created Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based GridMeNow and Seattle-based Stabilitas. GridMeNow’s enterprise app and web-based management portal now claim U.S. federal agency, local municipality, university and corporate clients. Asked about other aspects of travel risk management beyond tracking, CEO Adam Tolk said, “We don’t try to be all things to all people.”

Stabilitas co-founder Greg Adams emphasized artificial intelligence in describing his company’s apps. “We’re trying to connect everyone traveling while maintaining the privacy of company info and the individual travelers, and anticipating what they need next using AI,” he said. Check-ins, messaging and geofencing features also are part of the product.

Adams likened the app to Google’s Waze traffic app, which crowdsources congestion and incident information to warn drivers. This would be supplemented by information from about 4,700 news sources, helping flag problems. Stabilitas was part of the 2015 Techstars funding program. Pilot clients included Accenture, Batelle, CH2M, FINCA International and Harvard University.

The impact of real-time tracking on batter power is always a concern. When TRM stalwart iJet International released GPS tracking apps in December 2014 on Google’s Android and January 2015 on Apple’s iOS, it included a message on the download pages that’s still there: “Continued use of GPS running in the background can dramatically decrease battery life.”

“We have optimized for the mobile battery,” said Stabilitas’ Adams. “There’s more we can do.” He said a lot of the difficulty stems from moving between different telecom and Wi-Fi networks. “If you run the app as a navigation service, you’ll kill the battery,” said Adams. “We’re working to strike global deals to get city-level info and the ability to keep the app going or do background pings to the phone in a low-cost way — in terms of battery life.”

Tolk said GridMeNow minimizes drain by “using some unique coding” to limit power use to transmission or reception.

According to Vismo, using Wi-Fi hotspots and improved GPS chips have reduced battery drain. “Algorithms use a combination of metrics from the phone such as speed, GPS, network information and cell tower locations to determine optimal accuracy for locations from the device, without incurring the large battery drain usually typical of GPS tracking applications,” according to the company’s blog.

A fourth and even newer company, Montrose, Colo.-based Travel Recon, is releasing its free and premium apps in beta this month. Offering a number of the same services, it claims to address the full gamut of risk management needs. Go Recon is a free crowdsourcing safety app. The premium version, Travel Recon, features intelligence, push notifications, multiple data sources and “high-end social analytics,” said founder and CEO Toby Houchens.

Houchens also has a military background. His company last year received funding from Telluride Venture Accelerator.

The Travel Recon suite will include a dashboard for corporate program managers. The tracking service includes pinging and specific location obfuscation.

“It’s great that startups are challenging the status quo,” said Houchens. However, tracking and communications are merely aspects of a full travel risk management program, he said. Houchens has a lot of support for that notion among analysts and other TRM providers.

“It’s about decision-making and intel,” he said, “and there’s a difference between aggregating media and actionable intelligence. That’s what we focus on — a hyper-granular intelligence capability. For $1,200 our competitors will give you a country study that hits the wave tops of the general topics. It’s better than nothing. We get into the weeds — you could be in Rio and you’ll see in real time how the threat landscape is changing neighborhood by neighborhood. An annual report isn’t good enough.”

Travelers and locals reporting issues and incidents will earn points for providing reliable information. Travel Recon charges on a subscription basis, either by destination or for unlimited locations and either monthly or annually. Bulk licenses are available.

A Word About Privacy

Tolk said GridMeNow doesn’t necessarily identify the specific location. Wi-Fi and cell tower transmissions create a geofencing approach. The app may send users within the fence a digital muster, prompting them to check in. Tolk said that he doesn’t see this replacing the use of travel data, especially for large organizations. However, “you no longer need to know they booked travel,” he claimed. “When they cross into that geofence, the platform alerts the device there are four documents they need to review. From a quality assurance perspective, you have a digital timestamp on when those individuals reviewed the documents. And now you can show that from a duty of care perspective.”

Meanwhile, users can opt for continual tracking or use a breadcrumb concept with check-ins every 15, 30 or 60 minutes. That activity displays on the map back at headquarters. “It’s not the end-all, be-all, but it’s another layer,” said Tolk.

With Stabilitas, a “ghosting” feature means a user’s exact location is masked. The general vicinity is transmitted. This is the default setting. However, in an emergency the user can turn on direct tracking or a security manager can “break the ‘privacy glass,’ ” said Adams. “It’s our belief that if you’re trying to protect employees and privacy at the same time, then it makes sense to track them. We’re not necessarily sharing exact location unless the company requests it during an emergency. We don’t necessarily even need to show the people on the map.”

Matthew Judge, managing director of the nearly 30-year-old TRM firm Anvil Group, said he advises clients to first adopt travel itinerary tracking. One reason is that it doesn’t raise the same privacy concerns that real-time tracking does. “Unfortunately, due to the exponential growth of technology and new suppliers entering the market promoting standalone ‘active’ tracking solutions, this fundamental piece of the travel risk management strategy is being forgotten, resulting in corporations becoming confused and losing sight of how to build up an appropriate solution utilizing the correct tools,” said Judge. GPS tracking is appropriate “for travelers who have been assessed to be higher risk, because of who they are, where they are traveling to and so on.”

TRM commentator and author Charles Brossman has critiqued the new military and security industry providers. On the question of whether to employ real-time tracking, he said, it depends.

“For many oil and gas industry companies or mining companies, constant tracking of movement via apps or programs using satellite phones may be a condition of employment and widely appreciated by travelers who travel far from commercial airports while on the job in potentially dangerous areas,” Brossman noted. “Alternatively, a company might have implemented a TRM program’s check-in feature, with the explicit understanding (conveyed via policy and training) that it is only used in the event of a crisis. Again, there are different ways to implement and address concerns around GPS or satellite tracking, and as these methods are adopted over time, if companies are regularly conducting assessments of their TRM programs that include benchmarking their use against their peers, it will be easier to establish industry standards in the event that a legal defense is required.”

International SOS’ Daniel made similar remarks: “Our clients consistently tell us that success with these services is always less about the technology and more about the practicalities of implementation and adoption. For example, if an organization has a bring-your-own-device approach for smartphones there are limits to what they can enforce in the way of apps, international data roaming, etc. There are also still significant privacy concerns. Solutions that are developed with a hostile environment or military mindset don’t necessarily translate well to the corporate business travel world.”

Additional info: The latest version of International SOS’ main tracking solution, TravelTracker, improves on data capture capabilities by taking in emailed itineraries and parsing them using WorldMate. This supplements travel agency booking data and other sources.

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Author: Jay Campbell

Jay Campbell in 2004 created travel business newsletter The Beat, in 2006 co-founded Travel Procurement magazine and in 2010 integrated them into Northstar Travel Media's BTN Group. He served as editorial director until 2013. Jay made his travel industry media debut in 1993 at the Air Travel Journal of Boston while earning his undergraduate degree in journalism at Boston University. More on LinkedIn.