The location-aware future is here (and why cities suck but are good)

Thought-provoking article in Wired on the implications of location-aware devices for our social relationships, privacy concerns, and how we consume and publish geo-located content:

I Am Here: One Man’s Experiment With the Location-Aware Lifestyle

The location-aware future—good, bad, and sleazy—is here. Thanks to the iPhone 3G and, to a lesser extent, Google’s Android phone, millions of people are now walking around with a gizmo in their pocket that not only knows where they are but also plugs into the Internet to share that info, merge it with online databases, and find out what—and who—is in the immediate vicinity. That old saw about how someday you’ll walk past a Starbucks and your phone will receive a digital coupon for half off on a Frappuccino? Yeah, that can happen now.

Simply put, location changes everything. This one input—our coordinates—has the potential to change all the outputs. Where we shop, who we talk to, what we read, what we search for, where we go—they all change once we merge location and the Web.

The article neatly finishes with a sense of ‘the more things change, the more things stay the same’, which seems to be one of the markers of the moments when technologies are integrated into our lives:

I had gained better location awareness but was losing my sense of place. Sure, with the proper social filters, location awareness needn’t be invasive or creepy. But it can be isolating. Even as we gradually digitize our environment, we should remember to look around the old-fashioned way.

Found via Exporting the past into the future, or, “The Possibility Jelly lives on the hypersurface of the present” which in turn came via a tweet.

I also recently enjoyed ‘How the city hurts your brain… and what you can do about it‘. It’s worth learning how you can alleviate the worst symptoms, because it seems cities are worth putting up with:

Recent research by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute used a set of complex mathematical algorithms to demonstrate that the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory — the crowded streets, the crushing density of people — also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the “concentration of social interactions” that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists.

‘Finding yourself with Fire Eagle’ at WSG Findability

On Wednesday I went to the WSG London Findability event, and I’ve finally got the last of my notes up.

The final talk was from Steve Marshall, on ‘Finding yourself with Fire Eagle’.

Steve doesn’t work on Fire Eagle but made the Python library.

Fire Eagle is a service that helps you manage your location data.

Most location-aware applications have two parts – getting the location, and using the location.

Better model – distribute the location information, but the application getting the location still has to know who’s using it.

Even better model: a brokering service. Fire Eagle sits between any ‘getting’ applications and any ‘using’ applications, and handles the exchange.

[FWIW, ‘Fire Eagle is a brokering service for location data’ is probably the best explanation I’ve heard, and I’d heard it before but I needed the context of the ‘get’ and the ‘use’ applications it sits between for it to stick in my brain.]

So how does it work? In the web application context (it’s different for desktop or mobile applications):
Web app: app asks for Request Token
Fire Eagle: returns Request Token
Web app: user sent to Fire Eagle with token in URL
Fire Eagle: user chooses privacy levels and authorises app
Web app: user sent back to callback URL with Request Token
Web app: app initiates exchange of Request Token
Fire Eagle: Request Token exchanged for Access Token
Web app: app stores Access Token for user

You can manage your applications, and can revoke permissions (who can set or get your location) at any time. You can also temporarily hide your location, or purge all your data from the service. [Though it might be kept by the linked applications.]

How to use:
1. Get API key
2. Authenticate with user (OAuth)
3. Make API call

Concepts:
Locations can be a point or a bounding box.
Location hierarchy – a set of locations at varying degrees of precision.

[There was some good stuff on who could/is using it, and other ideas, but my notes got a bit useless around this point.]

In summary: you can share your location online, control your data and privacy, and easily build location services.

Discussion:
Question: what makes it special? Answer: it’s not coupled to anything. It plays to the strengths of the developers who use it.

‘Fire Eagle: twitter + upcoming + pixie dust’.

URLs are bookmarkable, which means they can be easy to use on phone [hooray]. It doesn’t (currently) store location history, that’s being discussed.

Qu: what’s the business model? Ans: it’s a Brickhouse project (from an incubator/start-up environment).

All methods are http requests at the moment, they might also use XMP ping.

Qu: opening up the beta? Ans: will give Fire Eagle invitations if you have an application that needs testing.

I had to leave before the end of the questions because the event was running over time and I had to meet people in another pub so I missed out on the probably really interesting conversations down the pub afterwards.

My notes:
Looking at their hierarchy of ‘how precisely will you let application x locate you’, it strikes me that it’s quite country-dependent, as a postcode identifies a location very precisely within the UK (to within one of a few houses in a row) while in Australia, it just gives you the area of a huge suburb. I’m not sure if it’s less precise in the US, where postcodes might fit better in the hierarchy.

I’ve also blogged some random thoughts on how services like Fire Eagle make location-linked cultural heritage projects more feasible.