What is Geolocation?

Everything on the Earth’s surface has a location that can be expressed with just two coordinates. Using the new classes of geolocation tools, it is very easy to determine and capture the exact location of physical objects — as well as capturing the location where digital media such as photographs and video are taken. The other side of this coin is that it is also becoming easier to work with the geolocative data thus captured: it can be plotted on maps; combined with data about other events, objects, or people; graphed; charted; or manipulated in myriad ways. Indeed, such data are leading to entirely new forms of mapping. Devices we commonly carry with us increasingly have the ability to know where they (and, consequently, we) are, and to record our coordinates as we take photographs, talk to friends, or post updates to social networking websites. The transparency of this group of technologies — they are increasingly imbedded in all sorts of devices and technologies — is making them very much an essential part of our lives.

Geolocation technology is not new, but it is now commonly available in a growing range of devices like mobile phones, cameras, and other handhelds; at the same time, the software tools we use every day are beginning to include features that make use of geolocative data. Emerging third-party applications for mobiles that can obtain and transmit the device’s physical location give us ways to integrate our experiences in the physical world with those in the online, virtual world of the Internet. Where it was once time-consuming and tedious to attach geolocative information to photographs, video, and other media, it is now easy — even automatic. It is increasingly common for photos and videos in online collections to “know” where they were taken, and social networking updates from many mobile devices are already geotagged automatically.

An increasing number of mobile and web-based services can respond to geolocative data in creative and useful ways. Radar (http://outside.in/radar) serves up local information like news, blog posts, restaurant reviews, and so on, based on a viewer’s location as determined from the IP address of the computer being used. Buzzd (http://buzzd.com) is a city guide and social networking tool for mobile devices, including not only local information but also user ratings and tips. Mobile Twitter clients like Trak (http://www.trak.fr/site/en/) and Twinkle (http://tapulous.com/twinkle/) add the user’s location to tweets, indicate nearby friends, and show messages tweeted in the user’s vicinity.

Collage (http://tapulous.com/collage/), a photo application for the iPhone, lets the viewer upload geotagged photos, browse photos taken nearby, and see photos as they are taken all over the world. Mobile Fotos (http://xk72.com/mobilefotos/) is another iPhone application that automatically geotags photos taken on the device before uploading them to Flickr. Dynamically updated maps on mobiles help travelers understand how to get from here to there, without having to first figure out where here actually is. The technology to capture and use geolocative data in user-friendly ways on mobile devices is just beginning to hit the mainstream, and we can expect to see tremendous development in this area in the coming months.

For those without devices that have built-in geolocative capability, a variety of free or inexpensive tools to capture and display geolocative data are available. The Photo Finder by ATP Electronics and the Nikon GP-1 are examples; they capture GPS data and synchronize it to a camera’s data card to geotag the photos automatically. Another approach is to use a specialized device like the GPS Trackstick (http://www.gpstrackstick.com) that can be carried in a pocket or glove box. It records the path it travels, and the data can be uploaded to create custom maps of walking or driving routes, hiking trails, or points of interest. Geotagging of media of all kinds is increasingly easy to do (or is automatic), and as a result, the amount and variety of geotagged information available online is growing by the day.

It is also becoming easier to create mashups using multimedia and geotagged data with online tools. Many free or very low-cost tools to capture and display geolocative data are available online and they continue to improve in usability and flexibility. Google Maps (http://maps.google.com), for example, offers a one-button way to overlay public, geotagged media onto the relevant section of a map as you view it; photos or videos tagged with the location in question simply fall into place on the map. A similar feature is available to place media onto Google Earth’s 3D display. With Flickr Maps (http://www.flickr.com/map), viewers can see at a glance what tags are currently being applied in a given region, or find (for instance) locations in North America where photographs of monarch butterflies were taken. Other mashup authoring tools give the user even more control, allowing the use of uploaded datasets, custom maps, and more.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

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(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • Link to AR and Context Aware - to reduce the long list here? - roger.blamire roger.blamire Feb 27, 2011
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(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on teaching, learning, or creative expression?

  • These kinds of tools have the potential to have a great impact on learning and creative expression - used in combination with other technologies. Some of the examples given above refer to pictures taken in different locations. Not only are the pictures themselves data, but all of the information that comes with the picture - the location and time, and with that information other conditions and contexts surrounding the picture. These and other tools provide learners (who would not otherwise give these processes a second thought) with the opportunity to collect, organize, analyze and draw conclusions about the world around them. - jeanne.century jeanne.century Feb 21, 2011
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(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

Please share information about related projects in our Horizon K-12 Project form.