Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Google Latitude on the iPhone - Location Based Social Networking

Google Latitude has featured here earlier; just short after it was launched earlier this year. Since then it has been rather quiet around the service, not only on this blog. There are a few comments after the launch and some first advise on how to use, implement and link it, but then that’s it. Regarding the users it is not quite sure on how many people actually use the service. There are probably more that have signed up for it, but do not use it regularly.
On the hardware side of it there are also a few problems and hurdles to take. On the iPhone it only runs inside the browser, as Apple has blocked the development of a standalone software in order to “protect” the Maps as the main navigation software. The other hurdle is that no software can run in the background on the iPhone.
On other handheld devices such as Android and BlackBerry, Google’s list here, it runs as a stand-alone application and can even run in the background.

Some services online now include Latitude in their signing up process, in order to provide the customers with accurate location based information. On of them is gps-tours, a website to share walks, hikes and climbing tours.

Since the launch of the service a lot of concerns have been raised. In general a large and loud group of people are very concerned about knowing or publishing a persons whereabouts. This not only includes Google Latitude, but location information in general. From GPS to RFID tags everything that could give away a person's location. An example from politics.co.uk shows what the concerns a directed towards: “The dangers are obvious. Stalkers or violent husbands could surreptitiously find out someone's location by throwing a phone in their car boot, for instance. Jealous lovers could install the software while their partner is taking a shower. Employers could force workers to use a Latitude-installed phone.” The main problem is really, that our location is already in the system. It is not so much about this one product, but rather towards a recent development in technology. Google is just a good target because of its size and popularity, but there are a lot of companies that track our movement and habits on a daily basis. In London for example TFL, Transport for London, knows the location roughly of hundred thousands of people, or financial institutes trough the use of ATMs even internet providers know roughly where the computer is located you are logging in and there are many more examples and of course speculations. All these information’s are not made public to our knowledge. Compared to this with Google Latitude there is the option to share this information with others. Google seems to have given some thought to these concerns prior to launching the service. They have taken a number of measures to help prevent “accidental” use or the use trough a third person, mainly trough integrating it into the Google services and therefore protecting it from third person access. But also by implementing a number of steps that lead to the activation of the service.

Image by UrbanTIck - Google Latitude screen on the iPhone

How ever for now I have my position on the blog for everyone who is interested. I have given this some thought over the past four years and I am not too concerned about people knowing my location. While working with GPS and tracking every now and then people would ask and laugh whether my wife has access to the data. These sorts of jokes are not only funny but reveal peoples concerns, in this case as stereotypes, but still people are thinking about it. I myself have never really seen the location information as a potential risk factor. Perhaps very naive I usually think of it in terms of my project, but also very personally as a statement of activity, a memory of reality in my daily world of computer, blog and internet.

Image by UrbanTIck - Google Latitude settings on the iPhone

How ever these concerns are real and have to be addressed. On the other hand people also have to learn to live with the use of this technology and adapt to the new implications of security. I am not saying we just have to accept this as is, but find ways to improve the situation.

On the other hand the actual location information trough the Google Latitude service is somewhat crude. I am not sure if this is only on the iPhone, but it is not very accurate. It is very slow too, in terms of response to movement. By only using the browser based service, my location in central London is generally 200 to 500 meters of. I have found that if I first open Maps and define the location, this is usually very quick and gives a good accuracy (sometimes a bit off the street inside a building, but all right) and then switch in to the browser the pinpoint is much better. Of course this is partly down to the settings to implement some privacy while public (how complicated is this).

An in detailed Latitude critique can be read at readwriteweb.com. As an opposition to the concerns raised on personal location information I would like to mention the large communities that are forming around the services to share location information. Google Latitude is by far not the only service available. There are a number of communities. And most of the applications are offering more option, control and supposedly fun than Latitude. In the earlier blog post services were Brightkite, Loopt or Pocket Life by Vodafone. They are still around and well used. Some offer now iPhone applications, but surprisingly some are paid apps. An additional service is the one of mapme.at. It does the same and it has a really cool time line feature, similar to the one in timemap developed at the MIT.
So to conclude there is a lot more out there than just the Google Latitude and I will have a closer look at these services soon.


Anonymous said...

Great article! And I must say - you mentioning the 'other' players is great - I really like them more then Google (and use Pocket Life for example for photo sharing), but I am also afraid of giving all my data to big G

fan said...

You are right, Latitude is really basic and does not offer features. But probably it is not meant to do this and it really is about getting people used to share their location, and then provide the data for other applications. If Google would want to develop a application themselves they would have done it by now.

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