Layar: Augmented reality through mobiles in Amsterdam


Layar is one of the most visually impressive and powerful applications I have seen to date using a mobile. As noted on Download Squad,

“Layar uses the camera and location-based services of your mobile device — Android devices only, so far — and overlays information on the camera image. This is flying-car level tech, the kind of stuff that sci-fi nerds dream about, and it’s got plenty of practical applications for the average user, too.”

I last wrote about augmented reality on this blog around three years ago. At the time, this was experimental technology. That in just three years the technology has advanced to this degree I find quite incredible. I don’t for example know of a similar PC based application?

And as I said three years ago, the potential of such research to create devices that can support situation awareness, the understanding of a locale (important in Online Dispute Resolution) or just as a handy mobile phone based walking guide to a foreign city or region is fascinating.

Rather than useless experiments (such as getting Second Life to run on mobiles) this technology showcases just what is possible using mobiles today.

What Germany, the UK and the US will get anon I can’t wait to see come to my part of the world. What ideas can you think of for augmented reality applications in the real world, beyond real estate and commercial purposes?

Review of participatory mapping by IFAD


An excellent new report from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) looks at GIS and participatory mapping techniques that in places like Ghana have been used for conflict resolution as well.

Participatory mapping is multidisciplinary. What makes it significantly different from traditional cartography and map-making is the process by which the maps are created and the uses to which they are subsequently put. Participatory mapping focuses on providing the skills and expertise for community members to create the maps themselves, to represent the spatial knowledge of community members and to ensure that community members determine the ownership of the maps and how and to whom to communicate the information that the maps provide. The participatory mapping process can influence the internal dynamics of a community. This process can contribute to building community cohesion, help stimulate community members to engage in land-related decision-making, raise awareness about pressing land-related issues and ultimately contribute to empowering local communities and their members.

Download the full report from here. This really is one of the best reports I have read in a while, and the Annexes at the end provide a wealth of comparative information on different participatory mapping techniques and technologies.

There is on page 12 an example of how participatory mapping helped with conflict resolution in Ghana. It comes to mind however how techniques enumerated in this excellent review can complement CR / CM / CT initiatives in Sri Lanka, where close to 300,000 IDPs need to be resettled along with tens of thousands more in the Jaffna Peninsula and in the East in particular from the 3 decades of conflict.

This participatory mapping approach can actually extend beyond the geographical to mental landscapes as well, where workshops can use these techniques to draw mind-maps that explain the causes of and relationships between actors involved in and factors supporting violent conflict, so as to figure our ways to address such violence.

So while participatory mapping has been used to some degree in Sri Lanka in rural development, it’s interesting to see whether post-war territorial conflict can be mitigated to some degree amongst IDPs and refugees by the use of these techniques.

Google Latitude: Real time location awareness through mobiles


At the time I last wrote about the potential of location aware web / mobile mashups and services, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence disallowed the sale of GPS enabled mobile phones. That seems to have changed in the past month. Airtel and Dialog both sport the Blackberry Bold, which has in built GPS, and Dialog’s Crescat shop now showcases the Blackberry Curve 8310 again – which was taken off the market because it also had in built GPS. 

I find GPS and location aware services fascinating. In the insecure environment for human rights defenders and other NGO staff in Sri Lanka, this sort of technology potentially holds much value in tracking staff movement in high risk areas. on the iPhone pretty much defines this genre of software. The iPhone’s UI coupled with the social networking and location aware services of Brightkite open up a range of possibilities that were unimaginable just a year or two ago. 

Google’s now got in the act with Google Latitude. Unlike which is only available on the iPhone, Google Latitude works on:

  • Android-powered devices, such as the T-Mobile G1
  • most color BlackBerry devices
  • most Windows Mobile 5.0+ devices
  • most Symbian S60 devices (Nokia smartphones)

with support for iPhone and iPod touch devices and many Java-enabled (J2ME) mobile phones, such as Sony Ericsson devices coming soon. 

Google’s video on Latitude sums it up nicely. 

I’ve used Google Maps on my Blackberry Curve 8310 (with GPS), the 8320 (without GPS) and now on the Bold (with GPS) and have been blown away by its accuracy in cities where location data is on Google down to street level. In Copenhagen, I was able to find my hotel just by using it. In Salzburg, I was able to find Mozart’s birthplace using it and the most heavenly chocolate gateaux I’ve had from a local patisserie. It’s fast on the Curve and faster on the Bold. 

With Latitude built in, the version number on the Blackberry goes up to 3.0 from 2.3.x. One annoying thing is that you have to sign into Latitude even though I have Google Chat running on my Bold. Given that I have an over 15 character alpha-numeric-symbolic password that I can’t even remember off-hand, it’s a pain to type it in all over again. And at the time of writing this, Latitude fails to verify my mobile number, despite several attempts. 

Not that these glitches detract from what can be a very cool tool. As the video shows, you add friends and you can then follow them as they meander through their cities. It’s a bit weird to be tracked thus, and it’s a relief to find privacy settings that allow you to update location data manually. For the moment, I’ve put it on automatic, to see how well GPS works in Sri Lanka. Proximity alerts I guess will only ever work with street level data sets, not yet available here. 

The neat thing about Latitude is that it allows for web based tracking of mobile phone location information. As the screenshot from my iGoogle shows, you get a Latitude gadget that links to a Google Maps mash-up. Very cool. Potential uses for this for 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.

The new Google Maps for mobile

Google Maps (on the PC or on mobiles) is not that useful in Sri Lanka, but I was in Copenhagen this week and using it on my Blackberry I was able to locate my hotel as I was walking along. The street level detail is quite amazing and coupled with the Blackberry 8310’s GPS, the accuracy in a city that Google has a lot of GIS information on is astounding. 

Google’s now released a new version of Google Maps for mobiles, which I just downloaded. It’s more responsive than the previous version for me and the graphics, even for Colombo, seem sharper. For select cities, the new version includes street views, a feature hitherto only found on the desktop client.

My only concern – roaming data charges. In Denmark it cost DKK 75 per megabyte, and while this is quite sufficient for emails, running data hungry apps like Google Maps could run up quite a bill.

That said, can’t wait to try out the new Google Maps version in a city that Google supports street view.

Google Earth in the browser. So what?

I’ve been working on Google Maps (GM) quite a bit lately to map incidents and trends related to humanitarian access, election violence and human rights. It’s exciting to note that Google has now released a Google Earth (GE) plug-in for browsers that allows for a richer, 3D experience provided you have the bandwidth to spare.

A recent BBC Click story put the number of those who had downloaded Google Earth in the hundreds of millions. But the story fails to note how many of those who downloaded it actually use it regularly and of that subset, how many use it to view the more serious layers available for it (on climate change, on refugees, on genocide) instead of just looking at the roof of their home from space or walking down virtually through the same roads they would travel on in real life…

My experience with GIS with the NGO sector in Sri Lanka is that no one really has heard about it! I’ve been trying without much success to introduce it to the work of HR and humanitarian organisations with a large local footprint for close upon two years, but the significant human resource (and financial) investment that needs to go into data manipulation, analysis, plotting and sustaining that kind of operation is not something that has convinced organisations to embrace this. So what you find are the more hobbyist non-specialist GM / GE activists like moi, who use it with what they have in the hope that by example and by its use in advocacy, more people will see its benefits. (The interest in CMEV’s elections violations maps, the first of their kind in Sri Lanka, suggests that this could be the way forward in getting more widespread awareness and use of mapping for advocacy) .

And I may be the only one, but I find GE sometimes an overkill and hard to use. I find that the GM API’s offer more flexibility in this regard particularly for web integration and web based advocacy, but don’t have the programming knowledge myself to use leverage them, having instead to rely on coders who are already pressed for time with paid deadlines.  

The new GE web browser plug-in may help bring in a lasting “wow” factor to map based advocacy, with as the Google LatLong blog notes, with just a single line of code.Only one problem. Only Windows is supported at the moment.

When the frack will these organisations realise that not everyone runs, or cares to run, Windows?

Anyone interested in pursuing the pros and cons of GE / GM should read Paul Currion’s excellent commentary here and the paper referenced on it.