LBS Thoughts where 2.0

A smartphone without location is just not smart !

Last week location tracking almost hit the mainstream following Pete Walden’s presentation at the Where 2.0 conference, organised by O’Reilly who where also key in promoting the story..

Both Gary at and Peter at offer a more nuanced and thoughtful commentary than  the near hysterical reactions of the blogosphere and tech press.

At worst Apple is guilty of a lack of transparency, yes the collection of anonymised location data is mentioned in the ridiculously long terms of service and despite the fact there is a location services on/off switch in your iPhones preferences the fact that low accuracy location was collected came as a surprise to most users. I think Android is a little more explicit in the sign up process for your new Android phone you are asked to allow location date to be collected, however perhaps the industry as a whole needs to be even more clear and open in stating the benefits of collecting this data.

Location data is too important to become “ick” !

The only way we can stop it becoming so is by highlighting the benefits of the technology, so that people can make the informed decisions to opt in or not.

I’m not sure of Apples motivation although it sounds like they are trying to build their own location database rather than tracking people in the same way that Google and Skyhook have done in the past, but without wanting to sound glib in general terms any form of location based service needs to know where your device is..

Remember the old days when you used to have to type your postcode/zipcode into your phone to get a local map to be displayed, clearly we can’t go back to those days, we expect our smartphone to know where it is… is not really smart without that information !

That information comes through a number of technologies GPS being the most well known, but also databases of wifi and cell tower locations and ultimately if all else fails your devices IP address are used to provide device location. Most of us expect our location to be known nearly instantly when we want a map displayed or we want to geocode a photo we have just taken, for this to happen with any reasonable level of accuracy your location technology needs to be awake, running as a background process on your device.

Actually most of us if we think about it don’t have an issue with this other than perhaps the drain on device batteries, as the vast majority of location aware apps on our phones don’t share the location information, they are just used to establish the users context.

When however we start to share this information then we potentially do get to the point of “ick”, if there is not completely transparency and control over the process. Clearly if I chose to share my location derived by all this technology via Facebook or Twitter I have in theory made the conscious decision to tell my friends, follows and potentially the world world where I am at that point in time. For those who do share location in this way, there is a value in doing so, perhaps further developing their social networks for example, for users of the check-in services like foursuare there is additionally the potential of a financial incentives of discounts and offers from business owners.

Increasingly location based services are beginning to go beyond the manual checkin model to suggest location to check into automatically, Google Latitude for example has an option to do this, and in the near future many services may be customised based on your implicit location automatically derived. Again this has the potential to produce the “ick” response, but this ultimately is the most beneficial use of location technology.

Let me provide an example, just over a month ago I received this text message as I was getting up to go to work…

“Red Tsunami alert (8.8m, depth:24.4km) in Japan Yamagata 11/3 05:46UTC, Pop100km:31000, tsunami 860cm, Kamaishi – JRC”

This was an automatically generated SMS warning of the Sendai or Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami generated by the GDACS project of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. If you have not already done so I would strongly suggest you sign up to it. The GDACS system take feeds from a number of geological and meteorological agencies around the world and produces automatic warnings related to the occurrence of natural disasters that have the potential to impact human life.

My reason to sign-up and at least share my email address and mobile telephone number was clear, like any parent I don’t want to be one day sitting on a beach somewhere with my family wondering why the tide has gone out .. this is the sort of information you need pushed to your device without question. As it stands the GDACS system is very useful, but it could be much better. On the 11th March I was at home in London, so the Sendai quake and tsunami had no direct impact or need for any immediate action on my behalf. I have family in Tokyo however who we did immediately call, who had just got over the quake and wondering how we knew..

Imagine a development of GDACS which could offer much more specific warnings bassed on a knoweledge of the users location, that would offer a clear reason why you might want to share your location full time with a third party ?

Of course more mundane application which warned me if my travel plans where going to be impacted or if the camera lens I was looking for was actually in stock at a nearby store could also make use of this information.

There can be real value in sharing location, but unless as an industry we clearly state what these are, and we are transparent in how this information is collected we run the risk of scaring off users under an avalanche of media scare stories.

Of course it’s interesting that this data has been collected by mobile network operators for years and has been made available to law enforcement agencies and the security services when requested for years, and this data unlike most of the emerging location aware services is not anonymous !

Written and submitted from home (51.425N, 0.331W)

3 replies on “A smartphone without location is just not smart !”

I have been involved in a project for a mobile phone operator where we track the cell that a user was last in and that users identification. In case of fires the operator then uses that information to sms users within the danger area.

Really simple and effective use of the information a phone network already has about users in an application that may save lives.

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