Google Latitude for human rights activists

I’ve written about Google Latitude earlier on this blog. What dedicated GPS devices like a Garmin did in the past, most mobile phones can now do out of the box. Location mapping is a new dimension in web services, and while platforms like Ushahidi are in the limelight for using location data via mobile phone to, for example, channel humanitarian aid in Haiti, any organisation or individual can leverage completely free products and services from Google to incorporate location mapping in their work.

Since early 2009 and beginning with Colombo and Kandy, Google Maps has progressively improved the level of detail on maps in Sri Lanka. Many major cities now feature street level data, and main roads across all of Sri Lanka are now plotted. Google Latitude is a free service that allows you to plot on Google Maps your current location, using the web or automatically via a client that can be installed on a range of mobile phones models, including:

  • Google Android-powered devices
  • iPhone
  • most color BlackBerry phones
  • most Windows Mobile 5.0+ phones
  • most Symbian S60 devices (e.g. Nokia smartphones)

Google Location History, which is pegged to Google Latitude, allows one to plot on the web all travel over a certain period of time.

I have a Blackberry Bold 9700 (which has A-GPS) running Google Latitude, set up to update my location automatically, and this is a video of my travels over the 8th of May 2010, at the end of which I took a flight out of Sri Lanka.

Google allows one to plot the last 500 odd location updates, which can even span multiple countries. This is not information available publicly or on any timeline shared without my explicit permission. I uploaded this video only to demonstrate the power of Google Latitude’s location awareness. As Google notes,

  • Your history will not be visible publicly or to your Google Latitude friends.
  • You may delete your entire location history or portions of it whenever you like.

Admittedly, it is a tad disconcerting to see one’s movements tracked with such unerring accuracy. Yes, I’ve chosen to share my current location information, but seeing my daily routine plotted on the web – including my movements from home to and around Colombo and my route to the airport – is a stark reminder of how seamless and sophisticated Google’s technology really is, undergirded by developments in telecoms infrastructure and the sophistication of mobile devices. Some might even argue, and not without merit, that these technologies are invasive, needlessly opening up one’s personal life to Google’s scrutiny.

But consider this.

If one already has a compatible mobile handset, this are technologies that without any further expense can help colleagues, friends and family keep tabs on one’s movements, especially valuable for human rights activists at high risk of personal harm or abduction. All everyone needs is a Gmail account. Coupled with simple measures like calling ahead with an estimated time of arrival when attending meetings and travelling, this is an easy, effective and once set up, completely automatic way of plotting one’s travels on a map which can be accessed by trusted parties in case of an emergency.

It is potentially a life-saver.

And as I have noted before, the potential uses for this in real time election violence monitoring, IDPs and refugee movement tracking, Human Rights and Ceasefire monitoring, peacekeeping, humanitarian relief and disaster management are impressive and beg to be explored.

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