In the midst of my exploring new concepts and technology related to location, I got a phone call. Through an automated system, I (along with everyone else in my neighborhood) was instructed to step outside and look in my yard, my car and my storage shed for a missing teen. As benign as this message was, I couldn’t help but think that Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 had become real. “The fugitive cannot escape if everyone in the next minute looks from his house.” (See more of the quote and another use of location.)
This was a stark example of location (of my landline) and a sensor system (me) being combined to perform a task. In the last entry, I wrote about uses of location information in more or less pure form. But combining location detection with information, comment, visualization, pattern recognition, elements of time and motion, position, identity, personal profiles, expertise, availability of resources and dozens of other bits of capability and data can be world-changing. To illustrate, I’ll discuss three examples.
Show Me – Imagine being able to request information — say, pictures — from people who happen to be in a known location. (This is, in a way, the opposite of Google Goggles, which provides information to the people who have the images in front of them.) Uses? An artist needs an image of the Eiffel Tower from a specific angle at a specific time. A student needs to illustrate a paper on the Pyramids. A game warden enlists tourist to provide indications of poacher activity. A genealogist who needs a good picture to read the full inscription on a tombstone.
People might provide these images on demand for pay, but the Internet provides plenty of evidence that people like to be helpful. (In fact, one of the most interesting phenomena of our networked age is information altruism.) If you add conversations (a terrific plus for location), Show Me can include the comment, interpretation and enriched meaning that turn a simple request into a fuller experience — both for the person requesting the image and for the person who provides it. This becomes an even more valuable phenomenon if it builds relationships and if an accreditation system is added (to rank comments and credential learning) and if sorting, alert and translation systems are used to increase access to the experiences.
Tourist Tag – Tourism is educational, fun and important to building bridges across cultures. But it can be painful and confusing. And many people avoid tourism because they fear getting lost, getting sick or being victims of criminal activity. Many elements of the downside are location-based and problematic because of a lack of information. GPS already enables many reluctant tourists by making it more difficult to get lost. Mashing up location/map information with train schedules, restaurant menus and services (such as bike rentals) already exists. Adding recommendations, warnings (pickpockets, high crime neighborhoods), health risks (do visitors like you get food poisoning?) and availability data (are tickets available? is it crowded?) can further improve the tourist’s experience. It would not be hard to activate volunteers to answer questions on the spot (or remotely), to join in games (as with a recent mass snowball fight in Washington) or to help locate a misplaced hat. In addition, tourists could give back by providing an outside view to the locals and sharing appreciations. (Nicolas Nova has provide an excellent view of future tourism, along with informative links.)
EnviroSense – Finally, location plus sensing devices can provide tools for social change. Chemical sensors have already been deployed to cab drivers in Ghana with the aim of getting real-time, location-based data on environmental pollutants. Most of what is needed from a technological standpoint is already available because cab drivers have cell phones with GPS. Ad hoc armies of environmental activists have the tools within their grasp to document and track pollutants. Their data could be used for snapshots of current conditions (and perhaps warnings to the most vulnerable, such as those suffering from asthma), identification of sources of pollution and longitudinal studies that, for instance, might see the effect of season or weather.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here on what billions of networked location tools (phones with GPS and cameras) makes possible. I haven’t dealt at all with the limits, unintended consequences or dangers. But it’s clear that we have a new network that will both complement and rival the Internet in its impact on our lives.