Employers track staff with Google Maps app

If you thought big brother was watching you, it's just got worse.

Google has launched a smartphone app that will track  workers' every move outside the office.

The app, developed in Sydney, is a spin-off of Google Maps, aimed at companies with teams of workers who spend most of their time out on the road, such as couriers, equipment installers and repair technicians.

Many already deploy what is known as field force automation software whose makers have for years endeavoured to fine-tune programs to allow jobs to be despatched and reports completed remotely.

The rapid uptake of mobile phone allowed insurance, real estate, equipment installation and repair companies, among others, to give field workers paperless access to details of their jobs. Mobile payment machines followed soon and now it is common for couriers, furniture deliverers, home appliance installers and business equipment repairers to brandish a smartphone or other mobile device for a client to sign at the end of a job.

Now Google has decided there's an even simpler way. Google Maps Coordinate is billed as a smartphone app for businesses that want to automate their field jobs and keep track of their workers for "improved productivity". It claims to make it easier for managers to see and allocate jobs to the closest staff member, optimising their work schedules.

It will connect to Google Maps and to the phone's GPS, and in true Google fashion, hope to disrupt current more complex practices by streamlining some of the steps required to set up accounts and tailor forms. Companies need to open a business Gmail account for each field worker and customise forms somewhat with a drop down menu. Full customisation of forms and processes is not available.

Workers will be able to accept or decline jobs, and "check-in and "check-out" of jobs to signal they have started or been completed.

Managers will be able to see all workers on a map real-time, and look up time stamps for worker's location and interaction with the app under job history.

Aware of the privacy sensitivities surrounding the tracking of field employees via GPS and mobile devices, a Google senior product manager, Daniel Chu, said the app had a scheduling feature built-in.

"Workers who don't want to share their location when they go home, can set [the app] to automatically shut off location sharing in the evening. It's time based," Chu said yesterday, in Sydney, ahead of the app's global release this morning.

He said workers could also toggle to 'invisible' when on breaks, meals or personal errands.

Workers would also have to consent to share their location, via a permission screen that explained the app's terms. This "option" is likely to be mandated by companies adopting the US$15-per-user-per-month app, however.

Chu said all the information processed by the app would be encrypted to ensure business confidentiality, but admitted the encrypted data would be stored offshore in several of Google's many data centres around the world.

The app will initially only be available for Android phones, but Chu conceded the team may have to quickly release an iOS version given the Apple's iPhone footprint worldwide. But he declined to put a deadline on the release.

He promised workers would be able to dissociate any personal Google accounts used on a smartphone, from the business account needed for the app. The app would be run separately to other Google services, such as Google+, as workers may not want to have their work day posted to the social network as an update.

"When [companies] purchase Google Maps Coordinate, the Google accounts that are created will automatically have other Google services disabled," he told IT Pro.

He said Google's goal was not to take market share from specialist field force automation vendors, but to cater for companies that hadn't yet adopted a specialist system.  But he said developers were welcome to develop application programming interfaces (APIs) to integrate the app with existing field force and customer relationship (CRM) systems.

Vern-Harn Hue, senior market analyst, software and services with IDC in Australia said field force automation would eventually move to app-based solutions.

"It's is all about mobility and efficiency in field forces. It was really based on PDAs before but now there are so many mobile devices on the market, an app like this makes a lot of sense."

Hue said traditional software vendors would eventually migrate their products to apps.

"They won't die out, but I think they'll all move towards a simpler app as most of the business-facing applications are all moving towards the mobile platform."

Gartner research vice president Geoff Johnson said telcos, electricity utilities and emergency services were among the biggest users of field force automation software, usually from large software vendors who package it with a ruggedised mobile device, and often with a CRM.

"It's a significant market but in particular industries," he said.

"And the way occupational health and safety (OHS) is going, there'll probably be a requirement to track workers and know they are ok, even with an emergency button."

He said power users would continue to deploy their more sophisticated software, but were likely to "mash up" with the new Google service.

"I can imagine the [corporate] app stores selling APIs for variants of that."

-IT Pro