Deliberately (and Unexpectedly) Tracking My Journey

I’ve been tracking my journey and in doing so inadvertently uncovered a sea change in the way in which we view the whole thorny issue of location tracking.

Yesterday, Ed Parsons and I drove from London to Nottingham and back to attend the one day Supporting the Contextual Footprint event run by the Horizon Digital Economy Research institute at the University of Nottingham and I had Google Latitude running on my BlackBerry, with location history enabled, as I usually do.

Unofficial Google Latitude T-Shirt

Using the pre smartphone, pre GPS, pre Latitude method of writing it down, the journey went something like this:

  • On Thursday afternoon, leave the Yahoo! office in London.
  • Walk to Piccadilly Circus Tube station and catch the westbound Piccadilly Line.
  • Alight at Heathrow Terminals 1,2, 3 station.
  • Pick up a rental car at Avis.
  • Go home and sleep.
  • On Friday morning, wake up, and leave London.
  • Drive to Nottingham, stopping at Warwick Services on the M40 for coffee.
  • Attend the event in Nottingham.
  • Drive back to London, stopping at Warwick Services on the M40 for more coffee.
  • Drop rental car off at Heathrow.
  • Take car home and sleep.

Nothing too controversial there. Using the smartphone, with GPS and with Latitude method of using my BlackBerry, the journey becomes much more detailed and visual but also shows curious blips where I appear to dance around a location. All the more mysterious as they seem to happen when I know I’m in one place and not moving, until I realise they’re probably AGPS locks from wifi or cell tower triangulation, kicking in for when my GPS can’t get a satellite lock. Playing back the journey on the Google Latitude site looks like this:

Despite the fact that I i) explicitly installed Google Mobile Maps on my BlackBerry, ii) explicitly enabled Latitude in Google Mobile Maps and iii) explicitly enabled location history in my Google Latitude account, a little over 12 months ago, this would have been controversial enough to whip the tabloid media into a privacy infringing frenzy. Looking back to February 2009 in my Delicious bookmarks shows headlines such as Fears that new Google software will spy on workers and Google lets you stalk your friends (which are just plain factually wrong), together with the pointed MPs claim Google Latitude is a threat to privacy: Irony-meter explodes from cnet.

As I went about the events of the day, I checked into my accounts on both Foursquare and on Gowalla. Just take a look at where I checked in and the sequence of check ins.

Tracking my journey; Gowalla

To start with I check in at the Yahoo! UK office, followed by

  • Piccadilly Circus Tube Station
  • Terminal 1 (Heathrow)
  • Avis (Heathrow)
  • Warwick Services (M40)
  • Park Inn (Nottingham)

… which is pretty much a simplified version of the above two journeys. I’m tracking my journey here too but where location based social networks are concerned, the media is far more accommodating and enthusiastic; 12 months after Foursquare’s launch, 500,000 users, 1.4M venues and 15.5 checkins (with Gowalla either neck and neck, out in front or lagging behind according to differing sources) the most shrill piece of negative publicity that Foursquare was able to garner was a mashup which looked for people publicising check ins on Twitter and inferred that this was an open invitation to the criminal element.

The value proposition of Google Latitude has always been in getting the consumer comfortable with sharing their location with a third party and with your social graph, which isn’t good enough for most people to grasp. The value proposition of checking in, keeping tabs on your friends and seeing what they’re doing is far more palatable and easier for the consumer to grasp with media coverage pretty much limited to ohh, look at the funny people obsessively checking in sort of article.

As an aside, if I was at Foursquare or Gowalla I’d be looking to mine the rich vein of stealth data that their users are generating at each check in, as it’s producing a geotagged and categorised set of local business listings and points of interest. For now though, there’s no public sign that either company are doing this, choosing instead to continue to grow their user base and to roll out into new cities and countries.

In the space of a year and with a different face, location tracking has gone from being Big Brother to being one of the hottest pieces of social networking with people at the recent SXSW in Austin TX actively complaining about check-in fatigue because there’s so many of these services (FoursquareGowallaLooptWhrrlBrightkiteBurbn,MyTownCauseWorldHot PotatoPlancast) to choose from and trying to check into them all can take anything up to 10 minutes.

If all of this talk on location tracking sounds interesting and you’re in San Jose CA the week after next at O’Reilly’s Where 2.0 locationfest can I strongly recommend that you check out the founder of mapme.at, fellow Brit John McKerrell‘s session on Why I Track My Location and You Should Too. As long as it doesn’t clash with my Where 2.0 session of course!

Photo Credit: moleitau on Flickr.
Written at the Park Inn, Nottingham (52.970538, -1.153335) and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Written by Gary

Husband, Father, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user.