Recently I read the fascinating story of “Etak”, the world’s first in-car navigation system. Etak was the brainchild of engineer Stan Honey who was hired by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell as a navigator for his boat “Charley” in the 1983 Transpacific Yacht Race, during that voyage the spark of the idea was formed and backed by Bushnell.

Today we take GPS and positioning data for granted, it’s used in everything from sat-navs, to our smartphone making nearby restaurant recommendations or adding location tags on photos. Which is what undoubtedly makes this story so incredible: that Etak provided a sat-nav like capability in 1985. That’s a full 10 years before the GPS system came online and 15 years before it became usable for the general public. No wonder then that when people first saw Etak in operation many thought it was some sort of trick.

I encourage you to read the full story here but a short description of this down-right ingenious system is that Honey and his team married the centuries old tried and tested mariners’ technique of dead reckoning with basic realtime data sources – namely a compass, turn indicators and speed/distance measuring device.

Beginning from a known starting point, the system worked by recording the road turns you made combined with the measured distance and used an algorithm to deduce where you must be on the map. For example, from a known start point if you drove 1 mile North, turned East for 0.5 mile, then turned North-East and drove for a further 3 miles those data points can be used to plot your position on the map. And the more turns you made the more data the algorithm had to work with and the more accurate your position. Indeed, so good were the algorithms that parts of the technology are still in use today by Apple in their Mapping App.

The wonderful ingenuity of this system provides an important lesson in the art of the possible.

All too often organisations know the kind of things they’d like to understand but believe they don’t have the data and need their GPS equivalent to be invented first. However, as Stan Honey of Etak demonstrated,  often the data is there already or you can create what you need with relative ease.

In our work at FutureProof usually we find the necessary data is spread across multiple systems, held in spreadsheets or even people’s heads. But this data doesn’t need to remain isolated and can easily be brought together using readily available Analytics tools and techniques.

By adopting a standardised approach to the problem answers can be obtained quickly and cost effectively.

These five simple steps will help you achieve what you need:

  • Produce a clearly defined requirement of the questions that need to be answered.
  • Identify where the data to meet this requirement is located. Typically we try to articulate this through a “systems-on-a-page” diagram showing all of the data touch points.
  • Determine any necessary data transforms or algorithm processing required to turn data into actionable information and insights.
  • Produce a clear solution design covering data loading, processing and presentation.
  • Through reporting and visualisations, get the information into the hands of those who need it, can interpret it or act on it.

The data repositories and analytics tools necessary to deliver these initiatives are increasing in capability at a breathtaking pace, with offerings available to organisations large and small. Larger organisations often call upon technologies and capabilities from their traditional vendors and systems integrators.

But the cloud space is where the real innovation is taking place. Market leader Amazon Web Services provides a powerful end-to-end suite of tools covering data extraction through to visualisations, with Salesforce Analytics and others hot on their heels.

So, it’s very likely that the answers you need are already there in the data you have at hand and it’s never been easier to uncover those answers. Which is a good thing if you don’t want to wait 10 years for the US Military to open up their systems and technologies.




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