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.

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.