Where am I?
Recently, I configured my Blackberry and a variety of softwares to let my friends and family know approximately where I am at any given moment. I tried a variety of applications and techniques and settled on those that work best for me. Automated location tracking is still in its infancy but already many applications are up and running and providing interesting useful services.
In the very near future, my hope is that my Blackberry might make suggestions for a good restaurant in my area or might let me know that one of my friends is nearby. After some initial exploratory research, I found many services are already set up to do exactly this. Most of them are just getting started so I lowered my expectations a little and set out to get just some basic functionality happening.
When setting up automatted location tracking for the first time, it helps if you already have a very good idea of what you want to accomplish. Then it is simply a matter of finding the right tools to get it all working. In my case, I simply wanted to update my friends and family of my whereabouts but keep the necessity to join yet more social networks to a minimum. I came up with a small list of tasks I needed to research, install and configure:
- My Blackberry would get my current location from its built-in GPS.
- My Blackberry would send my current location to the Interweb, somehow.
- My status on FaceBook would be updated with my current location.
- A pretty little map on my Blog would be updated.
Naturally, the idea would be that I didn’t touch the Blackberry to do any of this. It just happened and it would be timely and accurate.
If you look at the list, you can divide the tasks into two processes. First, my location is detected and pushed to a central location somewhere on the web. Secondly, my location is pulled from a central location and web sites are updated. That central location turned out to be Yahoo’s Fire Eagle service which I’ll discuss in more detail later in this post.
Pushing Your Location to Fire Eagle
Installing, and configuring the web applications required to accomplish the four little items listed above is not difficult to do but does involve following a number of steps for each application - an orchestration if you will. All of the applications require no tender exchange, i.e. they’re free! All you need is a BlackBerry with GPS, and the Interweb.
Blackberry Location Tracking from GPS using MoosTrax
Most models of Blackberry have a built-in GPS along with one or two built-in GPS applications. You may have already played around with yours a little. As a matter of fact, it helps to get one of the built-in applications up and running if for no other reason than to make sure the GPS is fully functional. Later on, if you are trying to troubleshoot some weirdness, you can go into the built-in application first and make sure the GPS is still operational.
In order to send location information to the Interweb, I wanted just a simple program that runs on a Blackberry, that pings whatever satellite is in my area and that sends my current geographical location to the web periodically. MoosTrax does this very well and has just the right amount of functionality. It works for the most part in the background, i.e. hands off. To instal MoosTrax, using your Blackberry, navigate to http://moostrax.com/ota and download MoosTrax’s BlackBerry application.
After the installation, you’ll probably go looking for the MoosTrax application. LOL! There isn’t one, at least not on the Blackberry Curve. Instead, you will use BlackBerry’s Options application to configure a small number of MoosTrax settings.
So, if you’re like me, you’re already probably confused and ready to throw in the towel, right? Fortunately, detailed instructions are available at MoosTrax’s support site. Follow those instructions carefully. After installation, you’ll need to link up with your account on MoosTrax web site and make some changes to the Blackberry MoosTrax settings.
If you have trouble connecting to your account at moostrax.com, turn off the Connect with BES option. In order to save your BlackBerry’s battery, change MoosTrax to update every 240 seconds (4 minutes) and only when your location changes more than 260 meters. These settings send a good amount of information to your MoosTrax account and you’ll be able to view fairly accurate plots of trips you might take.
Once you successfully log in with the MoosTrax Blackberry application, you’ll be able to see your location on the web when you log into your MoosTrax.com online web account. It is at that site where you will connect the MoosTrax application with Yahoo’s Fire Eagle application.
Yahoo’s Fire Eagle
Fire Eagle is Yahoo’s centralized “hub” for location data. An application on the web or in our case, the BlackBerry, updates Fire Eagle with location information. Fire Eagle then routes that information to other applications on the Web.
Fire Eagle really has two major objectives - to make it easy for people to capture, manage and use their location all over the web and to make it easy for developers to build applications that can use that location without having to do all kinds of incredibly complicated work building updaters and working with very complicated geo data.
- Tom Coates, Head of Yahoo’s Fire Eagle project
Fire Eagle provides a nice friendly way to manage all the web applications out there that work with your location data. For each service you subscribe to you may specify how much or how little the application can know about your whereabouts.
After creating an account with Fire Eagle, return to MoosTrax and navigate your browser to the Extras section of your account. You’ll see an option there to configure MoosTrax with Fire Eagle. Follow the instructions and test it all out. If you use the settings as I recommend, MoosTrax will only update Fire Eagle once every four minutes and then only if you have moved more than 260 meters.
When you’re testing things, be sure to spend plenty of time on your accounts at both MoosTrax and Fire Eagle. Make sure you understand why MoosTrax is doing what it does to avoid confusion later on. Also, MoosTrax has a fairly active online support forum for those times when you just aren’t sure about what you’re seeing. I found it is best to be patient. Monitor your progress over several days and make adjustments to everything as you go.
Pulling Your Location from Fire Eagle
Once you are successfully “pushing” your location information to Fire Eagle, you can start using that information to do interesting things by using one of the many web applications listed in Fire Eagle’s Application Gallery. I’ll describe two applications that perform items 3 and 4 from my little list at the start of this post.
Geoupdater - Status Update for FaceBook
Geoupdater is a great little web application that posts a simple status message to your FaceBook account. The status includes a link to a map of where you are. When I connected Geoupdater to Fire Eagle, I set the Read Level setting to my current city because I didn’t want to bombard my friends and family with useless location information. I pass through a small number of city level locations on my way to and from work so my updates to FaceBook are relatively few.
My co-workers are hooked into FaceBook as well so now they know if I’m at the office or at home. I love the fact that my friends, family and co-workers know approximately where I am at all times. They love it too! When I go on a trip out side my region, things get even more exciting! (Actually most people probably just hide my status. And, I know who they are, too
blogloc - Embeddable Google Map for your Blog
blogloc provides a great little service for your blog. After you create an account with their online web site, you can hook up blogloc with Fire Eagle. Then you visit their FAQ page where you can get a custom copy/paste code block for your blog’s template. I spent a little time with mine and got just the right size and zoom level so that my readers (you!) can know approximately where I am at the moment.
blogloc’s embeddable map uses Google Maps and is highly interactive. You can zoom all the way down to street level if you like. However, I have the Fire Eagle to blogloc connection set to city level so the map only shows some random point in my vicinity and not my precise location.
So, Now What?
I’ve played around with a variety of other web applications and I’m not too terribly sure about most of them. I do feel like I am prepared for the next big thing once it comes along. Friends on Fire seems really nice but the thumb tack that shows my location on their map looks pretty lonely - no friends
As a matter of fact, most of the web sites, services and other applications using location data have little to no content. And where there is some information about a restaurant or some other place of interest nearby, the information usually looks computer generated and lacks links to more info. This is sure to change as the Semantic Web takes off and makes searching for things far more sophisticated.
Hey! The Semantic Web and Geo Location working together,