Posts Tagged ‘geolocation’

When Geolocation Doesn’t Locate

Geolocation in today’s smartphones is a wonderful thing. The A-GPS chip in your phone talks to the satellites whizzing around above our heads and asks them where we are. If that doesn’t work then a graceful degrading process, via public wifi triangulation and then cell tower triangulation will tell our phones where we are. Except when something odd happens.

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And odd is the only thing you can use to describe the fact that I’m currently sitting in Teddington in Southwest London and thanks to some glitch in the matrix, either Foursquare or my phone’s A-GPS seems to think that a voting station in New England, yes, New England USA is close and local to me.

Geolocation is wonderful except when it doesn’t.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Talking About A Sense Of Place

As a precursor to last week’s mashup* Digital Trends event, I chatted to Paul Squires of Imperica about my location trends in more detail than the mashup* format would have allowed for. The write-up from that interview is now up on Imperica’s web site and, thanks to them adopting a Creative Commons  license, I’m able to reproduce it here.

A Sense Of Place

It’s going to be mobile’s year.

In fact, it has been “mobile’s year” for many years. Analysts have predicted that the following year will be the golden year of mobile, ever since WAP started to become generally available on small, monochrome screens.

This year, it might just be mobile’s year. Widespread adoption of geolocation, tablet computing and apps are transforming mobile from simply a mobile telephony handset, to truly mobile, experiential, computing.

The handset vendor that has been part of “mobile’s year” ever since the early days of such predictions, is Nokia. The journey from small, blue phones with Snake to technologically complex, Ovi-enabled devices has been fast and, at times, tough. Leading this continued evolution from the point of view of location, is Gary Gale.

Gale, as Director of Ovi Places, is continuing a life-long fascination with maps. From a deep fascination with Harry Beck’s Tube map as a child, he now runs a business which aims to meet – and exceed – the consumer expectations of what mapping can offer to mobility. These expectations are both, from the consumer’s perspective, urgent and complex.

Currently, location is often externalised, as demonstrated by the “world of check-ins” offered by Foursquare, Facebook Places, and elsewhere. Gale feels that location will simply bed into a wider context over time, leading to less specifically location-based applications, but more apps with location features. “The applications that we have, will do a much better job at predicting the information that we need, and delivering it – so it becomes less of a case of ‘app fatigue’. Currently, if you want to find a piece of information, you go to one app. It shows where the information you want to find is, so you swap over to another app, but then you realise that you’ve forgotten the time that the place you want to go to opens, so you have to go back to the previous app to find out. You then go back to the map app, and you find that it has lost the context, so you have to go through it again. It’s an immensely boring experience. Combining those pieces of information into something of use, is the challenge.”

“Industry commentators have been excited about the number of apps downloaded through app stores. It’s a nice infographic, but how many of them are usable? How many of them are used and reused on a daily basis? The challenge is less about the 30 billion mark; it’s much more about making my life easier.”

While Gale acknowledges that location is important – it’s rich, timely, and vital – but the important piece to remember here it is context. Gale’s view, which might challenge some current startups, is that as location does not fundamentally make an app in itself, it should also not be a rationale for a business.

Smartphones continue to occupy a minority share of overall mobile ownership, although this is growing quickly. As more and more consumers exchange their old handsets for sophisticated, GPS-enabled devices, the way in which we understand and use geo-locative data will change. We are still scratching the surface.

Privacy Area

“Despite the meteoric rise of the check-in economy, a lot of people are very uncomfortable with the concept of sharing their current location with a company. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable premise, as a lot of the ways in which this is messaged, is ambiguous and unclear. My fear is that there will be a big tabloid media crash involving this technology; all of a sudden, this is brought to the public, and they will sit up and take notice. In a high-profile divorce between B-list celebrities, if one claims that they weren’t somewhere and the app says that they were, then the press would have a field day. It would be thrust into the public’s attention. The challenge for the location industry as a whole, is to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

Gale points out the undercurrent of apps that, without the consumer knowing it, sends their location data back. While such references are often buried in a terms and conditions page that we all have the tendency to ignore until clicking Accept, the point is made that location information sharing is still oblique, with an insufficient level of clarity and understanding on the part of consumers.

This mismatch of delivery and experience extends to geotargeted advertising. As Gale’s history includes leading Yahoo’s UK Geotechnologies group – which developed the world’s first geotargeted advertising network. However, as he illustrates, geotargeting means, and results in, different outcomes in different environments. Different countries treat IP addresses in very different ways; regional IP allocation based on the Baby Bell network allows for reasonably precise targeting in the US, where many European countries make targeting more difficult, due to dynamic allocation. Such variations, and their impact on message delivery, are lessened with a greater degree of location information – although not without its dangers. “You have a trinity of mobile phone triangulation, GPS lock, and public wi-fi points, for information. They’re pretty accurate. Even without GPS, when someone is running a map application on an iPad even without GPS, just through just public wi-fi, you’re able to work out where you are. The key is to engage the customer, so that they think it’s a really handy feature, rather than “that’s creepy, how the hell did they know that?” – and that’s a big challenge.”

“People are happy with ads on mobile and the web, as they either consciously or unconsciously understand that there isn’t such a thing as a free lunch. What they’re less comfortable with, is the perception that there is someone watching them at that precise minute in time. That’s not the case; with the vast majority of information, apart from that which you sign on and participate in things, is utterly anonymised. You are just one point in a mass from which you can draw trends and plot nice graphs. There is a perception of ‘hell, how did I know that?’ and that’s very scary.”

More Than The Map

The other side of this coin, in terms of experience, is the quality of the information being presented. If your location can be pinpointed, then it means nothing unless there is good information – a good context to surround it. Gale makes the point that we are now at the point where it’s commonplace to use a GPS-enabled smartphone to find your way around a new place, where previously it used to be an A-Z, and latterly printouts of online maps. Neither are really seen in public any more, resulting in an expectation of not only “the now”, but “the what” and “why”. “We have had to go from the static, updated-twice-a-year view of the world, to a view where people have come to expect that the map which they are experiencing, is accurate, all of the time. If there’s a new housing development, footpath or a closed road, they get quite frustrated if they can see it with their own eyes, but the map doesn’t show that. There’s a fundamental change in the way in which we undertake mapping as a professional discipline.”

“The map’s not enough any more. You want a rich experience on the map, to avoid this disjointed app experience from earlier. You want the information represented on the map, to be available to you in a very easy-to-consume form which gives you the key facts that you need, and also to have it updated and be relevant. If you are looking for a place to get a cup of coffee, you want to know where those places are; you then need to know what time it opens; whether it serves food; whether there are nearby transport facilities. We expect that experience, no matter where we are. It’s a global marketplace, but everywhere in the world is local to somebody. It could be your local neighbourhood, or having got off the plane in a new city, you want to find somewhere to go out.”

You Are Here

“You expect that information to be made available in the same level of timeliness and freshness and accuracy as we do in your own local neighbourhood. That’s a significant swing from the two-editions-a-year, to a new place which has just opened up, and it should be on the map on my handset.”

Behind all of this, is place. “The spatial map still remains one of the best ways of visualising information. It’s visceral, visual, and the best way to impart this information. The map is not going anywhere, other than forward. People have predicted the death of the map, but it’s still the best way of representing that data.”

The point is strongly made that “hard data” – such a full address – is no longer enough, in terms of how to present location information. Our interaction with maps is similar to the historical use of search engines: based on hard syntax. “You have to know about informal places; you have to know about colloquial neighbourhoods, which don’t formally exist, but everyone knows where they are – like in London. Soho, Chinatown, the West End… are all ambiguously and vaguely defined, but everyone knows where they are. And you have to be able to understand that. But you also have to be able to understand in the same number of languages that there are in the world. People expect these services to respond to them in their mother tongue. You have to build internationalisation and localisation in, from the ground up. That’s a massive challenge for the industry. There’s still work to be done.”

As we finish, Gale makes the point that capability still needs information. While the UK and many other developed – and developing – countries have an abundance of mapping data to offer, this is not necessarily the case for every country. Essentially, this is about a quality, consistent experience – and for app developers, geotargeting-based businesses, and mapping agencies, to listen to consumers that pick holes in it. “They have the right to say that they were on location, and the experience was appalling. That will act as a significant nudge, in the direction of making the ability to have a complete map from different sources. People are coming to the conclusion that there needs to be a bit more sanity in this.”

Gary Gale is Director of Ovi Places at Nokia. Gary blogs at garygale.com, and he is @vicchi on Twitter.

Photo Credits: Mark Barkway and Isma Monfort on Flickr.
Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office in Schönhauser Allee, Berlin (52.5308072, 13.4108176)

Geolocating Yourself? In Europe, You’re Not Alone

Exposure 2010, the recent study by Orange and TNS, makes for some interesting reading for the location industry. Although it should be taken with a large pinch of salt from the pot labelled lies, damned lies and statistics, the study’s report shows the significant increase in use of geolocation services within the mobile space.

Pushpins in a map over France and Italy

In the UK, France, Spain and Poland, geolocation services occupy the 3rd, 2nd, 1st and 2nd slots respectively for most used mobile services. While the report only breaks geolocation down into two categories, streetmap/GPS and social networks, it’s not difficult to see how the perception that location is finally going mainstream is worth some merit.

It would have been nice to see a deeper breakdown by mapping service and social network but, in Europe at least, location and place seem to be making significant strides towards ubiquity.

Coverage of the report is available in a variety of places online including the EIN presswire as well as an overview of the study from Orange UK.

Photo Credits: Marc Levin on Flickr.
Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office in Berlin (52.53105, 13.38521)

As Location Goes Mainstream, So Does The Potential For Abuse

Geolocation isn’t really anything new. In a lot of cases we’ve come to expect it. Most smartphones sold today have an on-board GPS receiver and it’s considered a selling point for a handset to have one. Today’s mobile mapping applications and Location Based Mobile Services make use of the location fix that GPS provides. We’re used to our technology saying “you are here“. Without this there’d be no Ovi Maps, no Google Maps, no Foursquare and no Facebook Places.

Long before we put up a network of over 20 satellites a less accurate version of geolocation was available. Pretty much anything that puts out a signal in the radio spectrum can be used to triangulate your position, if there’s enough radio sources spead out over a wide area and if someone’s done the leg work needed to geolocate you based on the position and strength of those radio sources. This can be done with mobile cell towers, with radio masts and more recently with the proliferation of wifi enabled access points, both in people’s homes, in offices and in public areas.

No matter where you go, there you are - Buckaroo Bonzai

The process of wifi geolocation, sometimes called Wifi Positioning System or WPS, is sometimes combined with GPS, known as Assisted GPS or A-GPS, and sometimes provides geolocation facilities for devices which don’t have onboard GPS. WPS is what allowed the first iPhones and the iPad, both of which lack GPS, to position themselves relatively accurately and WPS also forms part of the W3C Geolocation system which allows web browsers to get a location fix. WPS isn’t as accurate as GPS but most of the time it’s good enough. Both SkyHook Wireless and Google maintain WPS databases, which allow you to geolocate based on the publicly accessible unique address (the MAC address) that every wifi access point broadcasts, regardless of whether the access point is open, closed or encrypted. This isn’t a flaw or a vulnerability, it’s how your laptop or mobile phone seeks out and connects to a wifi network.

Again this is nothing new. But the crucial part is that either implicitly or explicitly this is done by opting into the service. Either by configuring a service, by installing an application or by saying “yes it’s OK to use my location“.

But what is new is that by going “mainstream“, location sharing is now also ripe for abuse.

One indication of this abuse is the recent news that free apps on the Android platform are secretly sharing A-GPS location without the user being aware of it. One could argue that when installing the app this is listed as one of the capabilities …

This application can access the following on your phone:
Your location
coarse (network based) location, fine (GPS) location

… but just like the EULA, or End User License Agreement, people rarely read the small print and simply click through to get to the “good stuff“.

Another indication is the recent proof of concept that allows a malicious web page to exploit a user being logged into their wifi access point’s web based administration console, grab the MAC address of the access point and utilise a third-party WPS web service to geo-locate the user. Admittedly this is a proof of concept; it requires a very specific set of circumstances to be in place in order to work … a vulnerable wifi router, visiting a malicious site with the exploit installed, being logged in as an administrator on the wifi access point’s console at the time of visiting the malicious site.

But we should all be warned. As location goes mainstream and becomes ubiquitous, so does the attention of those who would abuse and exploit this.

As a footnote, the inspiration for this post came from Paul Clarke, who spotted the geolocation exploit proof of concept. In addition to taking a damn fine photograph, Paul also writes equally as well. If you don’t read his blog, you should.

Photo Credits: Stefan Andrej Shambora on Flickr.
Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office in Berlin (52.53105, 13.38521)