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Breaking Barriers to Entry into the Location Space

Andre Dufour, General Manager, Amazon Location Service, shares his perspectives on the state and scope of location services; and how Amazon Location is working on overcoming the challenges faced by consumers in this growing market.

BY Sanjay Kumar

Location is a part of the larger geospatial data ecosystem. How do you foresee the role of Amazon Location Service in the geospatial data marketplace?

It’s good that you have drawn a distinction between location-based services and geospatial, which is a broader term. That’s how we see it. We would like to think of ourselves as laser focused on the needs of developers, who are building location-based services into their applications — be it Web, mobile or backend applications. These developers have traditionally faced three challenges: cost, getting to production faster, and maintaining privacy and security of location information. We are working on breaking down these three barriers.

We have built a service that would make location data much more cost-effective, since we have heard that affordability often stands in the way of innovation. Secondly, we ensure that data is kept safe and secure, and is not monetized by us or by anyone else for purposes that are beyond the customer’s control. That’s very crucial and not necessarily a practice that has always prevailed. Finally, we help developers move from experimentation and ideas to production much more quickly by integrating Amazon Location with the rest of AWS.

Recently, several big companies like Apple, Salesforce, SAP and Intel have invested in geospatial data platforms. How is Amazon Location Service different from these platforms?

At AWS, we don’t spend too much time on thinking what other people are doing. We spend time on what our customers are doing and what their needs are. Customers have told us that even with an increase in the number of offerings, there is still this clear unmet need of developers building location-enabled applications. We have built a location-based service offering that really meets their needs. Our developers don’t necessarily think that maps are the coolest thing ever, or location-based services are at the center of our universe. These are people who have a job to do — an app to build. They are aware that location is an ingredient for their app, especially if they want to offer their customers a more personalized experience. Now, it may be a prominent ingredient, but it’s still just an ingredient like many others.

What we have tried to do is to make it easy for them to pick up location data from their starting point. They are on AWS and are familiar with our compute and storage services, databases, and so picking up Amazon Location is just a very natural experience based on what they are already doing with us. They can bring along all their practices that they have accumulated around monitoring, logging, auditing, and other Cloud-based practices, and just propel that ever so gently into location as they first begin to experiment with it and then grow. So, that’s the kind of need that we are trying to meet.

Would it be correct to say that you are focused towards adding the spatial or location dimension to your customers’ operations?

That’s a fair statement to make. Instead of catering to deep location specialists, we are saying that hey, you are a developer, and you have an interest in location, perhaps more than a passing interest. Let us help you get into that without it being a complex undertaking for you. That’s what we are doing.

Developers building location-based services into their applications have traditionally faced three challenges: cost, getting to production faster, and maintaining privacy and security of location information. We are working on breaking down these three barriers

What was the motivation behind the routing application, and is it just at enterprise level?

The routing application is quite enterprise focused, and so we draw a distinction between routing and navigation. Routing is sort of planning the end-to-end route, whereas navigation is more of a turn-by-turn thing, with the latter being more consumer focused. We are doing routing, which is very much in line with our transportation and logistics, delivery, and ridesharing customers.

Esri and HERE are established anchors in their respective domains, especially in software and data. What exactly do they bring to Amazon Location Service, since you are targeting the enterprise?

You are right to call these two companies anchors as they have decades of experience. That’s actually why we sought them out. At a very functional level, what they bring to Amazon Location is the data for our maps, places and routing functionality, which is at our very core. In addition to those three verticals, we have also built our own tracking and geofencing. More than data, we get expertise from these two companies. They have infused us with their customer obsession around what it takes to properly serve the needs of people who are in the location-based services space. This really helps us remain ever more connected to the needs of our customers. It’s a very strong partnership, and we were very clear about working with the leaders.

So, what does the partnership/business model look like?

We aren’t able to share the details of our partnerships, but I would say that as customers use and benefit from Amazon Location, all of us benefit from it.

Since Esri and HERE are anchors in their domains, it’s likely that some of your customers are their customers as well. How do you deal with that?

We come across such cases every now and then, and we deal with them on a case-by-case basis. We get together with the partner and the customer and try and figure out what the right offering is, and how do we make it work commercially for everyone.

Today, all kinds of information have a geolocation coordinate, and more and more geospatial layers are being added. In such an environment, do you foresee new partners coming in to enrich your platform and services, or is it going to be the way it is?

Let me start by saying that we and our customers are very happy with what Esri and HERE are already contributing to the set of functionalities that we have. That being said, we have intentionally built Amazon Location in a way that it is quite extensible in terms of adding new partners. We are very receptive to customer feedback and are always trying to understand their additional needs, and to what extent can those needs be met with our existing partners. We are always keen to know in which area, be it geographic or demographic information, do we need to seek out additional partners to complement those offerings.

Amazon Location Service is all about Artificial Intelligence, Business Intelligence and Location Intelligence. With this combined capability, who are your target customers?

When we set out to build this thing, we actually took the perspective that location is a pervasive concept. For developers in almost every industry, using a geotag is going to become as natural as using a timestamp. Since that was going to happen, we wanted to enable it. That being said, location obviously does surface in certain industry verticals, such as transportation and logistics and delivery, and we already have customers in these areas. For example, PostNL is using our service to track 250,000 of their delivery assets. Then there is this company called Singleton Solutions that has an app by the name of MobileLog, which helps customers in the delivery space achieve greater efficiencies. They are also using our service. So, transportation and logistics, delivery, ridesharing and automotive are the obvious users.

However, we have also had customers from less obvious verticals like retail. Now, retail isn’t traditionally obsessed with location. But since some retailers have outlets around the world, they want to show those locations on a map, and perhaps direct customers there. Similarly, we have a customer called CoolStays in the travel and hospitality segment that wants to show the location of different properties on a map. Customers in the financial services industry are using our service for address validation in a fraud detection application. Likewise in natural resources, healthcare and media and entertainment, people are using applications with location-based services in disguise. You know everything is somewhere, and increasingly people are wanting to mobilize that location component to either personalize a customer experience or gain additional insights from it.

Amazon is a company with a huge network of businesses. Almost everyone in this world who has Internet is connected with Amazon in some way or the other. Since the company lays great emphasis on data privacy and customers, how do you assure your customers that Amazon is not going to use their data for an unspecified purpose?

I have a two-part answer to that — one is a policy answer, and the other is a functional one. One position that we take very strongly in AWS is that customer data is theirs, and the AWS account belongs to them — it doesn’t belong to us, and certainly doesn’t belong to anyone else. We have some very strong barriers that prevent us from actually getting into that account; it’s a boundary that we never cross. All of our services give customers the ability to manage their own encryption keys. So, the data in your account is encrypted using encryption keys that you control. Even if for some reason someone peers inside there, there’s no way that person or entity would be able to make sense of it. That’s a strong functional level protection against any tampering. In terms of the queries that we submit to our third-party partners, we anonymize those and take out any customer data, so that nothing is shared beyond what one is looking for.

Today, we all behave responsibly in terms of data privacy, but the abuse done by the peer companies is always going to create a sense of suspicion in the consumer market. Since you are more focused on the enterprise sector, do you see this as a serious issue?

Enterprises and government agencies take their data privacy quite seriously. We have seen a lot of reluctance on their part to embrace some of the offerings that make different security and privacy promises. It is certainly a little bit different with Amazon Location, where we have been leading with the security first and privacy first value proposition, which is finding resonance both in enterprise and in the consumer world.

There are growing concerns around data sovereignty all over the world. In fact, the new geospatial policy in most countries calls for sensitive data to be hosted within their boundaries. Are you looking into that direction in terms of location information, especially in large markets like India?

That’s one of the reasons why we have launched nine AWS regions. We have plans to roll out many more, so that people can have their data sovereignty needs met as well as have access to availability zones and regions that are close to them for greater performance.

You talked about entry barriers in the location market. How do you define those barriers?

There have been three prominent entry barriers. The first one is cost. As longtime Amazonians, the last thing we want to hear is that customers are being constrained in their ability to innovate by cost. Historically, location services have been rather expensive. You have to be a little bit selective about what you use them for, and that has prevented a lot of useful applications from coming to the market — because they couldn’t generate positive ROI. It’s quite difficult to justify the cost of integrating location-based services, and so that has been one of the most prominent barriers. We have brought the cost to one tenth of what it used to be. So, that really resets the barrier to entry to a much lower point, where many more applications would be able to clear that hurdle.

Companies like HERE and Esri have been providing a lot of this data to customers. If they have not been able to make it cost-efficient, how do you plan to do that using the same data?

What is probably more compelling for those situations is the second barrier that we discussed initially — reaching the market faster — which is quite important. A lot of customers get stuck there. By virtue of being a native AWS service, Amazon Location is integrated with our auditing, monitoring, alarming and all other kinds of Cloud services that enable customers to bring their existing best practices to Amazon Location. And they can get from experimentation to production a lot more quickly, which ultimately does result in cost savings.

Do you foresee AWS competing with BI platforms like Salesforce or Google Maps in the near future?

We don’t really spend a lot of time focusing on who we are competing with. I can tell you that if customer demands take us into arenas where we have to compete with those companies, we would be happy to go there in the hope that we would make the most of the opportunity to serve our customers better.

The last 18 months of the pandemic have made the value of location information abundantly clear to policymakers at the very top. How do you see the location market growing in the next three to five years, and what kind of goals have you set for yourself?

Location certainly has risen to a greater degree of prominence as a result of the pandemic, and we see different kinds of applications being valued. For example, we have this customer called Command Alkon who is very focused on touchless delivery of construction materials. It turns out that location is a huge component of that, which wasn’t really the case before the pandemic. Many such applications would be there in use even after the pandemic. People, for example, have realized that there is a lot of value in convenience in food delivery. Location is actually going to become a basic data type for developers; it’s the ultimate tool for personalization in an application. A lot of location data that exists in enterprises today is not mobilized to generate appropriate insights, or to really help the customer experience, and that’s really what we want to help bring about.

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