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Wireless tech makes tourism splash


Opening Europe’s inland waterways to a new generation of travellers is a new system for the tourism sector. Due to undergo a test demonstration at the end of May, it will provide up-to-date, location-based information on everything from good restaurants to nearby emergency services.

Developed under the EurEauWeb IST project combines mobile communications, location sensing and detailed information and, if successful, could become the platform of choice for hundreds of other guides on everything from wilderness trekking to navigating museums. What’s more, the system responds not only to tourists’ needs, but also to those of boat operators and other leisure companies.

The promoters hope that accurate, comprehensive and accessible information will introduce a new generation of enthusiasts, as well as the elderly and disabled, to waterway holidays. Mike Kelly, coordinator for the project lives on a marina and is a keen ’narrowboat’ enthusiast, having his own boat. He came up with the project idea to overcome his frustration with inadequate guides. "Myself and my wife developed the idea when we were misled – again! – by an inaccurate guide. I thought ’there must be a way to combine technology with accurate information.’ There are excellent guides for waterways tourism but they go out of date very quickly," he says.

Ultimately the project stimulated a lot of interest from software developers and tourism boards, and now it has seven partners, three major subcontractors and a broad, enthusiastic user community. "All the stakeholders got involved. It’s difficult to organise such a large number of partners, but on the other hand it means we’ve got expertise in every single area," says Kelly.

Overcoming challenges

Delivering accurate information wirelessly poses a large number of technical and logistical challenges. Communications protocols need to work on a large variety of devices in different settings. Information needs to be comprehensive, but transmission payloads need to be light. Users must be able to retrieve information quickly, but current data devices are slow. "Initially we thought gathering information from a wide variety of sources, and keeping it up to date, would be the biggest headache," says Kelly. "In fact, that was a relatively easy problem to solve by using resources like the Yellow Pages."

The development of a multi-platform database was one of the first tasks the project tackled. The MySQL database can be ported to any device, or exported to XML, so essentially the same database runs on laptops, PDAs and smartphones. "What posed a far larger problem was the user interface, which also had to work on several devices," says Kelly. Displaying the data in the form of maps is difficult, but the project acquired a mature system from GeoConcept in France.

In addition to overcoming these challenges, the project developed novel solutions to other problems. Initially the project was for use with 3G (UMTS) mobile communications, but those networks are only now beginning to come on-stream. So the current system is designed to work on GPRS, i.e. 2.5G phones. Data transmission is slow, so CRS4, one of the partners, developed a telecoms protocol to compress the data.

Even more clever, however, is ’Pre-Fetching’. Developed by the Fraunhofer IPSI, with this protocol the device senses when the user enters a new area and downloads all relevant data. Once the data is in the device it can be consulted rapidly. When 3G becomes more readily available the system can be adapted to that, though pre-fetching will remain a very useful feature. It means you don’t need universal cellphone coverage because the necessary information can be downloaded in advance.

Offering new services

Along with technical triumphs the project developed new services that should prove particularly useful, such as ’hazard warning.’ On canals, for example, the locks by which barges ascend hills are sometimes locked, but often the barge is near the lock before travellers realise this with, particularly in England, little chance of turning round!

"Then you’ve got to back out the barge and it’s a tricky and time-consuming process. If your mobile could warn you of problems like this, ahead of time, it would solve a lot of headaches," says Kelly. Even when coverage is sparse, the device can check for updated information whenever it gets a signal.

One of the greatest advantages of the system is that it offers two-way communication, so that users can suggest new information or signal when old information is out of date. "We hope the user community participation will be one of the greatest strengths of the service. So far they have been very enthusiastic."

For operators, a fleet management system developed by EurEauWeb tracks the location of boats. It can tell if intruders enter the boat and can manage bookings too, and even perform diagnostic tests on the engine to head off trouble before it happens. "About 90 per cent of engine failure is due to insufficient oil or water for the engine. So a heat sensor linked to the operator via standard mobile technologies means operators can warn people if their engine needs observation," says Kelly.

What’s more, when the boat suffers some other failure operators can find the stricken vessel much more quickly. "They get the precise location of their boat," says Kelly. "That’s a big bonus because they sometimes spend a day trying to locate one of their vessels right now." The same information can give emergency services the location of an SOS.

Demonstrating EurEauWeb in action

All the essential work for the project is now complete and it goes into an extended trail at the end of May. Early trials last years showed that users valued the concept, and particularly features like ’hazard warnings’, but they felt the system was too slow. Kelly believes this problem is now solved.

If he’s right it could be the beginning of a very long and successful life for the service. So far there has been no truly successful implementation of location-based services and information for tourists. No universal platform exists that can be easily used on any device for any type of tourism information.

This is exactly the problem EurEauWeb solved, and if it’s a success it could potentially find its way into hundreds of services. The signs are so far good. A major guide publisher is in contact with the project. This may lead to some joint project, combining the publisher’s brand and data with EurEauWeb’s technical expertise.

"This won’t replace paper guides. People like leafing through guides in search of inspiration, but it will be an important supplement, enhancing people’s waterways experience," says Kelly.

Tara Morris | alfa
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