Mobile Location Mapping Apps and Other Technologies Make Reopenings Safer

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The summer has arrived, and people are eager to get outside. Music festivals and conferences are coming back, people are shopping in-person, and nearly two-thirds of Americans say they are going out to eat. On its face, it looks a lot like pre-pandemic life has resumed. Behind the scenes, though, many businesses are frantically searching for ways to welcome back guests at full capacity without sacrificing safety. 

Digital vaccine passports have become a thorny issue for state and federal governments, but private businesses and event promoters are finding ways to incentivize customers to take part in similar programs designed to enhance guest safety. Customers are being offered special perks, discounts, and other benefits in exchange for agreeing to download apps with mobile location-aware features designed to help businesses manage traffic flow and ensure social distancing without having to limit capacity.

“As consumers begin to head out to restaurants, concerts, sporting events, and more, it is important for many of them to feel a sense of safety,” says Mike Welsh, chief creative officer at Mobiquity, a digital consulting firm that works with some of the world’s biggest brands.

Mobiquity was one of a number of technology partners that worked to keep concertgoers at the Back to Live music festival safe this past spring. Wanting to bring people back together without sacrificing safety, the festival’s hosts and a Dutch science research organization worked with Mobiquity and Rabobank on a mobile app that would connect concert goers’ personal details to their rapid Covid-19 test results. Attendees who’d received negative COVID-19 test results were given motion trackers that traced their movements and contact with other people at the festival site. If an outbreak did occur, those motion trackers would be critical for detecting with whom each person had come into contact.

Plastic “SafeTags” developed by the German company Kinexon have also been used to record contact between wearers in the NFL and other sports leagues. Similar proximity-based wristbands are likely to be used at this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. Wearables allow for companies to quickly collect data for contact tracing and help wearers stay spaced apart without requiring the use of mobile devices or app downloads.

Proximity wristbands might not be realistic for the general public, but Welsh says they are a viable option for wait staff and other restaurant employees in the front of house and back of house. Reservation platforms like OpenTable could also develop tools that would monitor reservation and occupancy increases and send alerts when inside seating hits capacity limits. 

“These tools can also cross-check vaccination rates locally and create a safety index for each location, so diners can make the choice they’re most comfortable with,” Welsh says.

Delta Airlines is one of a number of businesses in the travel industry launching interactive tools that are part safety solution, part marketing. The company’s Delta Discover Map, for example, offers a way for guests to find out what’s open at various locations worldwide, and get details on any potential entry requirements. 

Automated technologies also have a role to play in our post-pandemic future. Retailers like Lowe’s and Sephora are using tablets and smartphones to help store associates keep up with increasingly demanding expectations for seamless shopping experiences. According to research by Global Data, almost eight-in-10 retailers now say they’re moving to an omnichannel model and uniting online and offline shopping.

Adding mobile location features to their customer-facing mobile apps has helped retailers like Home Depot and Michael’s speed up curbside and in-store pickups. In exchange for allowing mobile location permissions, customers get access to additional app features, like directions to nearby stores and navigation to specific items on store shelves, as well as limited-time deals and discounts codes.

Location-aware apps that utilize beacons and geofencing are one of the ways large retailers are repositioning their employees during periods of heavy traffic. Getting people in and out quickly, while maintaining social distancing protocols, is more important than ever as businesses try to bring guests back in a way that still feels safe.

Privacy Considerations

Some businesses in the events and entertainment space are adding QR code technology to their mobile apps for vaccine verification, which is an especially important feature if they want to keep vaccinated and unvaccinated guests in separate areas. But privacy considerations are still a hot-button issue that few companies are eager to wade into.

Although companies can use location and public data sources within their apps to identify outbreaks and provide alerts about consumer exposures, Welsh says confidentiality around private information will remain a large concern. 

“Ultimately, opting in to share location is tricky for many companies who must comply with GDPR and handle other privacy concerns that may loom over these use cases,” he says.

Engineering to the User

Ultimately, businesses cannot promise 100% safety for guests, regardless of which mobile tools they implement. However, they can take certain steps to increase the likelihood that their mobile apps will have a real impact on tamping down local Covid-19 levels.

Developing the kind of mobile app that really makes a difference in curbing the spread of disease requires a true collaboration between developers and the companies they’re working with. Welsh says the process needs to start with something he calls empathy mapping, “so that humans are at the heart of the experience being considered.” He says having a digital product point of view is important as well.

“Tech vendors and companies must ask themselves, ‘Does the product fit together holistically for the human experience?’ They then must take the initiative to think steps ahead of what customers need and take tools beyond what we can see, or what we think is possible, in the present moment,” he says. “In this way, business ideas can make an experience effortless for the fan, student, participant, consumer, patient, or traveler.”

When it comes time for implementation, Welsh says accessible experiences require planning and consideration early on in the innovation process. 

“Teams struggle to deal with failure and to learn how to bounce back after upsets, which can disrupt and hinder progress in implementation,” he says.

A lot of teams also have trouble with product management — product owners lack insight and foresight to understand and plan and to ensure the product delivers what users really want and need. 

“A solution to this challenge is to conduct research with actual users who are doing real things and exhibiting real behaviors. This is often ignored in favor of lagging indicator data to drive digital product planning,” Welsh says. “However, if the goal is to really understand human experiences, the actual user needs to be kept in mind. This will help companies develop technologies that will create a brand experience with digital products engineered to its users.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.