Google Maps Mobile for non-GPS phones

The latest enhancement to Google Maps Mobile allows people that don’t have a GPS enabled phone to get approximate location (within 1km) using mobile operator cell locations.

This is a good enhancement, similar to the Network-based and AGPS feature in new S60-based phones and also the offerings from Navizon. The questionable thing here though is, what cell location data is Google using to estimate this? Nokia and Navizon have started their own databases (Navizon includes both Mobile Cells and WiFi APs)… is Google starting another? What are the chances of standardising and creating an ‘open location database’?


(brought to my attention through Lifehacker)

Google encourages data corrections

Google have started to allow users to correct their address gazetteer. By searching for your address (I think this is US only for the moment) you will be shown the address marker as normal, but now when you click on the marker you will have the object to edit it and drag the marker to where you think it should be. This sounds to me like free labour on the pretence of better service in the future… a cunning ploy by Google, and one which I will probably join in on when I find a business I’m looking for has it’s marker out of place.

For minor changes it’s an instant fix, but if it’s wildly out (200m or more) the change gets put in a moderation queue.

I’ve been wondering about this kind of thing for a while and it’s nice to see more collaborative mapping happening… now, if we could only convince Google to collaborate on OpenStreetMap.

Google Maps gets collaborative

Google have added a new collaborative feature to My Maps. If you are logged in when using Google Maps you will now see an ‘Edit’ button when viewing user generated maps that you have permissions to modify. This is a great addition to the Google Maps feature line-up and should come in handy when you’re planning that next outing with friends.

(brought to my attention through Lifehacker)

Google Maps gets a native S60v3 version

If you tried the previous Google Mobile Maps application before and have an S60v3 phone, you might want to update to the new native version. It’s got a smoother display and now supports GPS, so all you N95 (or bluetooth GPS) owners can see where you are.

It doesn’t do satnav yet, but it can’t be too long before Google comes up with something to rival the subscription-only navigation of Nokia Maps and Tomtom. The only benefit Nokia Maps currently has (on top of navigation) is that you can download the maps and store them on your phone.

If you’ve got a mobile barcode reader (and if you haven’t, why not get one?), you can use the barcode below to go straight to Google’s download page.

Google Mobile Maps

Well done OS, you’ve done it again

As mentioned on, Digital Urban and Londonist, to name but two blogs, as well as the usual suspect, the Guardian covering the story. The Ordnance Survey have again shown their rather blinkered approach to public responsibility in favour of commercialisation by stopping a UCL CASA project to show air pollution in London within Google Earth using 3D buildings.

Since the 3D buildings are produced in part from OS MasterMap data the project is now only able to be used within government departments, as they have licenses to use the datasets already. The point of the UCL’s project was to allow the public to have a view of the situation.

The Londonist article describes the OS as the bank manager character from the Nationwide adverts, constantly going against normal thinking with ‘it doesn’t work like that’ answers. Some may think this is a bit harsh, but personally I’d say it was apt for:

The UCL’s own user interface is still available on their project site, but I don’t know how long that will last, it is, however, very impressive.

Another rant about the lack of maps

Being technical and loving maps, I tend to expect that other people that are into maps would want to use them wherever they’re relevant.  One area I always expect to see a map is next to addresses for shops/events.

I know some people aren’t technical when it comes to putting content on websites, but most places manage to at least put a link to Multimap/Google Maps, however, people who’s job it is to know about GIS I expect a little more of, and I think rightly so… a company such as the AGI (the focus of this rant) and it’s event sponsors have an interest to promote the use of GIS and mapping in general, and what better way than showing maps on their own sites in the most relevant places?

So what’s wrong with their site?  If you look on their first ‘When and where‘ page there is an address of the location of the event, with a link to the location’s website, but no map or map link.  Then you may notice the link to the ‘Travel Informtion‘, where they do at least have a link to a PDF map and to Streetmap.

Ok, so maybe that would ease my frustration, and I suppose when I saw that they’d at least put some sort of map on there, it did, a little, but of course I’m expecting more… Looking at the PDF map it is an A4 page with a map at the top, and that’s it… no directions (which they’ve got on their site), not even the address (so you can use SatNav).  Then, knowing the Streetmap website, you can’t plot routes to that location (which you can do from almost any other online map service).

Come on! People in the GIS and mapping industry should always be thinking ‘would a map add value to this information’, but it feels like sometimes they’re not thinking properly at all.

The iPhone as a GPS/SatNav

You may have seen the latest Steve Jobs WWDC Keynote and iPhone adverts and be wondering about how good it will perform as a GPS device (as you would any modern mobile phone) or for Location Based Services (LBS).

A lot of people are looking forward to the release of the iPhone, and I guess only time will tell as to how it performs, but I can see some things which may backfire with the fully online (or at least that’s what it seems) platform.

  • Steve hasn’t mentioned anything about GPS support within the iPhone, but I don’t see it not having support.
  • Unless there are some sophisticated caching mechanisms, maps are going to be unavailable in areas of low mobile network coverage.
  • Points of Interest appear built into the phone are most probably the normal Google Maps, and possibly not very customisable.
  • Other POIs are capable through the web browser, with AJAX these websites can appear as if they are native applications on the phone, but only through clicking on an address/location of some sort to trigger the Google Maps view of that point.

I hope to be proven wrong, but those are my reservations. If I am proven correct, this would surely be a major issue for anyone (like myself) who uses GPS/GIS in anger. Any ideas?

New Google Maps Feature – Street View

After watching the Mapplets YouTube clip I found another clip showing the new Street View feature (which has been available for a little while now). It’s available at the usual Google Maps site when you’re zoomed out, over the USA (sadly it’s not available for any other countries yet).

Once you’re there, clicking on the Street View button at the top shows some camera icons (not that many at the moment) and choosing one allows you to enter a 360 degree panorama mode. That, by itself wouldn’t be ground breaking, after all, you may have already seen some impressive panoramas using Panoramio which are available from within Google Earth. The thing that’s amazing is that you can move around the area (highlighted as blue glowing roads) either by dragging the little yellow person around the map or, even better, by clicking on guidelines within the panorama, walking you along the roads.

Panoramas seem to be available for every few metres along the roads, which is very impressive.

Here’s the YouTube clip which pointed it out to me… nevermind about the guy in the lycra :o)

New Google Maps Feature – Mapplets

Lifehacker just reported a Mapplets feature on Google Maps, which is only available if you go to the Google Maps Preview site (which once you start using, is available to you on the normal maps address). It all looks pretty cool, being able to put layers of information on Google Maps itself, rather than having to go to the individual mash-up sites.

There will still be a place for mash-ups, since you can’t customise the UI too much, but as the map equivalent to iGoogle gadgets this looks great!

One of the more fascinating mapplets I’ve found so far is ‘Zürich Travel Time Visualization’. It shows how long it should take to get to parts of Zürich using a colour overlay.

The Lifehacker post also had a YouTube clip attached to it, so I’ll attach it here too for completeness :o)

Lifecasting: Location Tracking

You may have seen or some other ‘live’ blogs (kind of like online reality television). Although I don’t think I could even remotely consider going that far, I do like the idea of allowing at least my friends and family to know where I am/what I’m doing. This post will concentrate on the ‘where I am’ part, I have posted some information relating to the ‘what I’m doing’ part on my other, more technical blog though, in case you’re interested.

So, you’ve got a GPS (eg. Nokia N95, or a Bluetooth GPS), you’re planning to keep it in your pocket all day and send location updates to the internet in some way, of course you’ll be utilising your mobile phone for this. There are two things to consider at this point… what are the requirements for the mobile phone software and what are the requirements for getting your location to somewhere useful (namely, the Internet).

I’ll discuss these two things separately.

Mobile Phone

For the mobile phone software (and I’ll be talking about Symbian S60 3.x based phones), we’re going to be looking for either a Java MIDP or Symbian S60 based application. The advantage of using a Java application is that it may also work on other varieties of phone. The downside is that they may not integrate as nicely into the phone’s features than S60 specific applications (such as the Location API) and may be a little harder on battery life (I haven’t confirmed this though).

Since we’re going to want to use our phone at the same time as sending location updates, the next requirements on the mobile side would be that the software not be too power hungry and that the software sit quietly in the background when asked. We don’t want anything being downloaded, such as maps, since this will also mean higher data usage and power consumption.

Note: Running a constant bluetooth and data connection will dramatically reduce battery life. The usual disclaimer about bandwidth prices on your operator apply.

So, who are the contenders for the mobile phone side?

Although Jaiku is good and puts your location online, it isn’t based on GPS (at least not at this time), instead it uses mobile phone cell information, so it’s not really usable for our little project.

3D Tracker works and has the simplistic features we want in terms of just the basic GPS tracking, but as far as I can see, it only sends up to a particular site which is not very nice to use (it’s seems a bit of an after-thought to their commercial site).

GMap-Track works, but it is constantly downloading map data and is also fixed to only send to their website, which at the moment is unfinished.

CoPilot Live 6 looks like they would do the job, but CoPilot looks far too heavy for our needs (it’s a full GPS routing system).

That leaves Aspicore GSM Tracker and AFTrack. I didn’t look closely enough at the Aspicore software and thought it hooked into some proprietary server software, but it appears to be possibly more flexible and open than AFTrack, which I purchased not so long ago. I may purchase the Aspicore software too as that does look better than AFTrack.

Both AFTrack and Aspicore GSM Tracker will do what we’re looking for, and I would now suggest using Aspicore over AFTrack, but I purchased AFTrack before reading into the Aspicore solution properly, so I will be using that for my system… Both applications work on the same principal though, so implementation should be almost identical.

The Web Service

Now we’ve chosen the mobile phone software we’re going to use, we can look at the Internet side of our solution. This is going to be a web service that takes the location information as input and allows you to display it in various different ways.

After a quick search there are many different services online that work with both AFTrack and Aspicore GSM Tracker.  There are also some services listed on the applications’ websites.  Each of the services I looked at, apart from GpsGate, had some major issues… they were either unfinished, unstable or 30 day trials/commercial sites.  What I was looking for was a (preferably free) service that had a somewhat nice feel to it.  We are, after all, going to be sending people to it.

GpsGate looks nice and seems to work fine, so you may find that suits your needs (Aspicore GSM Tracker is recommended for this site), but I wanted to be adventurous.

Since I wasn’t totally satisfied with the sites I looked at, I decided that I would develop my own service that works the way I want.  The service I have created can be found here.  It is under development, but I hope that over time, with enough feedback, I can make the site useful and feature-rich.

I have made the service free for single devices (I may have to charge a small amount for business use) and currently displays your location, with some history, on a Google Map and also allows you to have your location streaming near-live using Google Earth (it updates every minute).  I will describe below about how I’ve developed it, but I would appreciate as much feedback as possible about the service so I can develop the features you want to use.

Being More Adventurous

If you’re not scared by programming and you have some patience you might want to investigate creating your own tracking site as I have done.  I used nothing other than Ruby on Rails and the Google Maps API to create my service, but if you want some code to start from I suggest looking at Aspicore’s PHP Tools page.

I will describe in future posts how I made different parts of the service.

Overall I’m happy with the outcome of the system.  The final result was better than I expected for a first attempt, but I can already see some future improvements:

  • I like Free and Open Source Software, so I would like to develop an Open Source GPS tracker client as a community project.  This would allow the service I have created to be truly free for individuals, and so should get a lot more users.
  • I am trying to devise a way that the location information collected using the service could be turned into a ‘badge’ (small image/’widget’) that could be placed on a user’s blog.


Doing this project got me thinking… What else could we use the information we’re gathering about ourselves for?  The simple answer I came up with was… anything!  Currently I use ShoZu (another mobile application) to ‘tag’ photos I take with my location before sending them to Flickr.  I have also integrated GeoRSS into this blog.  What is stopping these (and others) being integrated with the information we already have apart from an open API?  I’ll discuss this in a future post.