“Technology crucial to tackle COVID-19”
Sarwar Ali Khan is the CEO of TPL Trakker, a subsidiary of TPL Corp. TPL Trakker is a pioneer in the GPS tracker industry in Pakistan helping customers extract and turn data about vehicles and their use into intelligence and providing reliable end-to-end solutions for individuals, commercial fleets, businesses and automotive industry suppliers.
Sarwar started his career with Accenture in the U.S. where he worked for over 5 years with a number of Fortune 500 clients. In 2010 he started working with the National Bank of Pakistan where he headed the IT Department until 2012. Later he was recruited by Samsung, Seoul to work for the Samsung Global Strategy Group which is part of the Samsung Chairman’s Office. Sarwar received his BS in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2005. He went on to complete his MBA from INSEAD, France in 2013.
In this interview, Sarwar talks about TPL Trakker’s current smart solutions it is providing to a building clientele. In light of Covid-19, Sarwar also talks about TPL Trakker’s partnership in providing tech-based services to the National Command Operation Center (NCOC) and National Information Technology Board (NITB) in response to the country’s tackling of the crisis. Edited excerpts follow:
BR Research: Can you give us a background on the different technology segments TPL Trakker is operating.
Sarwar Ali Khan: TPL Trakker is an IoT solutions provider (IoT solutions enable straightforward provisioning, management, and automation of connected devices within the Internet of Things universe. The Internet of Things (IoT) is network of Internet connected objects able to collect and exchange data).
Within the IoT space, we have three focus areas in our business. The first is vehicle telematics. These are solutions related to the automotive sector that we provide to banks, insurance companies in the retail sector as well as the corporate sector. This is the core business that the company started off with initially back in 1999. Since then, we've grown our product portfolio. The second area is location and data mapping solutions. These are the solutions and services that we are providing to the NITB in tackling Covid-19. The third area is industrial IoT solutions where we provide monitoring solutions for manufacturing, logistics and the industrial sector, such as fuel management solutions, warehouse management solutions, water management solution, generator fuel management solutions etc.
BRR: What specifically is the locations data and how are you collecting it?
SAK: When we started in 1999, there was a need to provide location data to our customers because back in the day, Google Maps or any other digital maps were not available. We set up our own GIS team, which is a team of surveyors who gather location data on the ground through specialized equipment. We are licensed to collect this data. Almost 20 years later, we've gathered a very large amount of data. In 2016, we decided to commercialize it and develop locations solutions and services built from this database.
BRR: What is the use of this data and what kind of industries or businesses could utilize it?
SAK: There are two elements: one is that we actually sell data APIs to customers who require location data to create their own applications. Application Programming Interface or API is a computing interface which defines interactions between multiple software intermediaries. It defines the kinds of calls or requests that can be made, how to make them, the data formats that should be used, the conventions to follow, etc. It can also provide extension mechanisms so that users can extend existing functionality in various ways and to varying degree.
We have a range of different data APIs, which are essentially libraries which we make available externally to our clients. To illustrate: Telenor is one of our clients that uses our APIs for their own asset tracking business and for their own location business. Then we have Eat Mubarak, a food delivery company that utilizes our APIs commercially for their riders, as well as the consumers, to look up and track addresses.
Our business model is a subscription based model and there is a certain amount associated with each API call. Based on the number of calls per month, we bill our clients. As our customers, clients and their usage grows, we grow.
BRR: Are you also building your location data as usage by businesses increases?
SAK: Yes, we have a data strategy in place whereby we have our on-ground team and house of surveyors, as I mentioned, that are doing customized mapping in areas which are of priority for our customers. We are now looking for local partnerships with companies which have locations data, but may not necessarily have the location engine in order for them help to monetize it. We are into revenue sharing arrangements with them to utilize and grow our data.
BRR: Geographically, how robust is your data, and how well-covered is it?
SAK: We have data in five different levels, first is the province, then the city area, then sub area and then down to locality level. To give you an example, province could be Sindh, city is Karachi, area could be Defense, the sub area could be Phase I and then a locality could be within Phase I.
In terms of our coverage, we have around 600,000 touching points. Close to 600,000 kilometers of road network map is covered. We have a total of around 5 million plus geo-coded addresses, these are commercial points of interest as well as residential addresses. This is growing on a monthly basis.
Geographically, all of Pakistan is covered which include tier one, tier two, tier three and tier four cities. There may be specific rural areas as well. For locations data, we are the only local company doing this. Google is the other main company that most people look at. But they do not have any legal presence or jurisdiction in Pakistan.
BRR: But Google data has a huge coverage. How do you differentiate your data from Google’s?
SAK: Generally, companies don't disclose their data standards, and Google is the same. There is no publicly available information that tells you how much data Google has. They do have an advantage through Android based phones—every phone comes with a map installed and generally they rely on crowdsourcing.
How do we differentiate with them: one, we're a local company. We have a team that is responsible for customized mapping. Second is indoor mapping. For instance, consider Packages Mall in Lahore. There are a number of different shops within the mall and we would have mapped these different shops as well. From a commercial perspective, we are cheaper than what Google would charge for its services as well.
In terms of services. There are two main areas. One is these data APIs that we sell. And the other is that we develop our own location solutions on top of this using our own APIs. For instance, we provide location based advertising solutions in Pakistan. Advertising right now is static, so we have recently launched geo-reference based advertising platform and how it works is we have a technology platform that we sell to different advertising agencies or companies. To illustrate: a consumer could be driving in the car, passing through, for example, McDonald's and McDonald's has a particular deal it wants to advertise. That deal would flash on the consumer’s smartphone. In essence, it is specific location-based advertising rather than just showing customers static content.
Another solution we provide is workforce and field force management solutions. The client using our service may have a large sales team that it is trying to track. These can be within the FMCG groups, banks as well as digital and e-commerce companies including ride-sharing apps and delivery services.
BRR: What data or services are you providing the NITB and how is the government utilizing it?
SAK: The overall system has been developed with the NITB and TPL Trakker is working with them as a technology partner on a pro bono basis. We think technology is playing a crucial role in trying to manage the coronavirus crisis around the world and we want to contribute in whatever way the NITB deems necessary and appropriate.
Specifically, we are providing NITB which is working with the NCOC our location data and a map center location platform. They have developed a system within which they're using our maps and data. Our services extend to 1) data visualization—that allows them to see Covid-19 cases at a more granular level based on geographical distribution down to the locality level and 2) a smart decision support system which is helping relevant stakeholders within the government to make decisions.
The entire system is deployed at the NITB in their data center. The NITB has their own database which is specific to covid-19 that is coming from hospitals and different testing sites. Then they also have population density level data of different localities. They use our technology to input these two data points which is anonymous data throughout to call our APIs to help them determine the geo-fence or the radius of the lockdowns (and how wide it should be) using the proprietary algorithm that we have developed. This helps them make smart lockdown decisions.
To break it down a little. It helps them visually see a geographic breakdown of the cases in relation to the population density of that area to help them decide where to do these lockdowns. So our technology does not help them decide where to do the lockdown, the decision rests with the government and relevant stakeholders. It is a tool which helps them make informed decisions.
BRR: Your technology essentially gives them information that could help them implement a lockdown or a “smart lockdown” as the government is calling it. Are there are solutions for tracking and tracing new cases as well, since this remains a major component around the world of successfully tackling the virus’ spread?
SAK: We have developed our own contact tracing technology which has been submitted to the NITB for evaluation and usage as they deem necessary. The technology is built along the same lines as what it is being done globally by governments. The tool uses BLE technology which is Bluetooth low energy devices. BLE does proximity calculation to track the people that we interact with on an anonymous basis to help with contact tracing. If a person turns positive, the model would be able to identify unique contacts (using BLE ID) that the positive-case came into contact with. This helps in tracking, and subsequently testing and quarantining individuals.
BRR: Can you comment on the efficacy of this technology and your expert view on whether using it would be the best strategy to track and trace?
SAK: We have submitted the technology for evaluation to the NITB. It is for them to decide when and how to utilize that, if at all. I can comment upon the technology itself and I think, in the current scenario, it is one of the best ways to do contact tracing. Otherwise, we are basically relying on manual collection of patient history and who they have come in contact with and subsequently following up with them.