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December 22 2010

16:05

How to Add Location Information to Mobile Content

Prabhas Pokharel contributed research and writing to this post.

If you're a journalist or blogger, adding location information to your content can add value to your work. This kind of data can be of particular help to journalists who report on specific communities, reporters who create venue-specific multimedia, or citizen journalists who cover events in which location is relevant.

Adding location information has many advantages. It provides more context. It also helps journalists and publishers find an interested audience because makes content more accessible for users searching for information regarding specific locations. Location information lends itself to aggregation, and content with location information can be put on maps and other visualizations, which makes it more appealing for audiences to examine. Through this, it can be used in pattern-finding. Finally, location information can leverage social media.

Location Uses

To help you get a handle on adding location information, I've identified some recent uses of location information:

  • The Online Journalism Blog showcased possibilities of using location reporting through Google latitude to present a geographic chronology of a parade.
  • Al Jazeera reporters traveled into the heart of the Sahara desert, and used location tagging to tell a photo story.
  • The Wall Street Journal has used location-based social media Foursquare in some experiments, using the platform for sharing news about Times Square bombings as well as restaurant reviews.
  • Neighborhood narratives invites students to share stories using cell phones, GPS devices, and social network games.
  • Locast is a location-based storytelling platform in which reporters and tourists tell their stories about a location using video and other tools.
  • SMS incident mapping has been used in various scenarios ranging from reports from natural disasters to tracking violent crime, citizen reporting in elections.

Geo-coding Addresses

mapmarker.jpgThe simplest way to tag content with location is to use a physical address.

Accessing location-based services on a mobile phone usually requires a smartphone that is programmable and has GPS and a data connection. For those without a smartphone, the simplest way of adding location information to content is to just use addresses and other geospatial information.

Street addresses, zip codes, and other geographical data can be converted to geographic coordinates using a process called geocoding. There are many services that will let you geocode addresses worldwide (better resources are available for the U.S.), although I'm unaware of any that you can use on a mobile without data access. GeoNames works well on a mobile web browser. There are several other geocoding APIs available that allow web and SMS applications to be built on top of them.

Automatic Location

Another option is to let software on your mobile phone automatically find your location. Doing this requires a phone that has GPS hardware, or one that can run software that can access your network setting.

Publishing this content to a blogging platform is the easiest way to include location. Some publishing platforms offer support through the mobile web, while others have location support when you use their apps. Besides blogging and microblogging tools, there are also specifically location-based social networking tools like Brightkite, Google Latitude, Gypsii, Foursquare, Gowalla, and many more. While these may not be designed for publishing significant content beyond location, they can often be used for journalistic purposes.

Another more tech-savvy approach is to develop an application that can access your mobile's location. This can either be done by accessing the handset's GPS directly, or by using a web application that interfaces with a location-aware API. One particularly useful starting point is the open source gReporter tool. Another useful starting point is a location-based platform with an open API, like Google Latitude. By building an application using Google Latitude API, you can use the apps and features Latitude users already use for reporting location, and do something interesting with the location data. Yahoo offers a similar location-based API with Fireeagle.

Platform Considerations

In order to produce interesting location-based reports, journalists need to think about the online platform where the information is aggregated and displayed, in addition to the mobile phone that is uploading location information. This parade, for example, uses Google Latitude very creatively. Many tools will not be built for journalism or for publishing; but with a bit of creativity, you can use them to publish interesting and effective location-based stories.

Of course, there are limitations to adding location information to mobile content. Most importantly are security and privacy issues -- especially when reporting in repressive media environments.

Photo by Mooi via Flickr.

October 24 2010

19:23

Reliable Open Database of Zipcodes mapped to City/County/State?

I'm looking for a database of zipcodes mapped to cities, counties and states, but most of the data sets I'm find seem either very out of date, proprietary, or both.

Any suggestions for an open data set that is solid in this area?

September 03 2010

16:00

An open and shut case: At the new TimesOpen, different models for attracting developers to a platform

One phone rings, then another, then four more, now a dozen. The 15th-floor conference room is suddenly abuzz with an eclectic mix of song snippets and audio bits, an intimate peak at their owners before each is picked up or silenced. Having impressed the audience with the telephony technology behind the product, the presenter moves on to the next demo.

The intersection of mobile and geolocation is still an unknown world, waiting to be invented by hackers like the ones at round 2.0 of TimesOpen, The New York Times’ outreach to developers, which launched Thursday night. We wrote about the first TimesOpen event last year: It’s an attempt to open the doors of the The Times to developers, technologists, designers, and entrepreneurs, who can use Times tools to help answer some of the field’s big questions. This iteration of TimesOpen is a five-event series this fall, each focusing on a different topic: mobile/geolocation, open government, the real-time web, “big data,” and finally a hack day in early December.

On the docket Thursday were Matt Kelly of Facebook, John Britton of Twilio, Manu Marks of Google, and John Keefe of WNYC. Kelly presented Facebook Places; Britton gave one of his now New York-famous live demos of the Twilio API; Marks dove deep into the various flavors of the Google Maps API; Keefe — the only non-programmer of the bunch — discussed lessons learned from a community engagement project with The Takeaway.

Building community around an API

An API, or application programming interface, allow applications to easily communicate with one another. For example, any iPhone or Android application that pulls information from a web-based database is most likely it through an API. If you search local restaurants through Yelp, your location and query are passed to Yelp and results given in return. For any company with an API, like the three at TimesOpen, the challenge is to convince developers they should spend their time innovating on top of your platform. Strategically, when there’s an entire ecosystem living on top of your platform, your platform then becomes indispensable and valuable.

What’s most fascinating to me, however, are the approaches each company is taking to build a community around its API. The community is the most important key to the success of an API, a major source of innovation. One of the keys to Twitter’s explosive growth has been its API; rather than depending on its own developers for all new innovation, Twitter inadvertently created an entire ecosystem of value on top of their platform.

Let’s contrast Facebook and Twilio, for example. Facebook hopes Places, launched in mid August, will become the definitive platform for all location data. Interoperability can happen, but it should happen over Facebook’s infrastructure. Facebook envisions a future where, in addition to showing you where your friends are in real time, Places will also offer historical social context to location. Remember the trip through South America your friend was telling you about? Now you don’t have to, all of the relevant information is accessible through Places.

At the moment, though, Facebook’s only public location API is read-only. It can give a developer a single check-in, all check-ins for a given user, or check-in data for a given location. They have a closed beta for the write API with no definitive timeline for opening it publicly. Expanded access to the API is done through partnerships reserved for the select few.

Twilio’s demo power

Twilio, on the other hand, is a cloud-based telephony company which offers voice and SMS functionality as a service, and whose business depends wholly on extensive use of its API. Developer evangelist John Britton made a splash at the NY Tech Meetup when, in front of hundreds, he wrote a program and did a live demo that elegantly communicated the full scope of what their product offers. On Thursday, he impressed again: Using the Twilio API, he procured a phone number, and had everyone in the audience dial into it. When connected, callers were added to one of three conference rooms. Dialing into the party line also meant your phone number was logged, and the application could then follow up by calling you back. All of this was done with close to a dozen lines of code.

At TimesOpen, Britton stressed API providers need to keep a keen ear to their community. Community members often have ideas for how you can improve your service to solve the intermediate problems they have. For instance, up until a week ago, Twilio didn’t have the functionality to block phone numbers from repeatedly dialing in. For one company using the platform, the absence of this feature became a significant financial liability. Once rolled out, the feature made Twilio much more valuable of a service because the company could more closely tailor it to their needs. To make experimentation even easier, Twilio also has an open source product called OpenVBX and brings together its community with regular meetups.

Facebook already has the scale and the social graph to make any new API it produces a player. But for wooing the hackers — at least when you’re a small and growing platform — open and inclusive seems to win out over closed and exclusive.

July 23 2010

21:24

Automatically geotagging longitude and latitude on addresses in Google Doc spreadsheet?

I have a spreadsheet of addresses and some other information I'd like to throw onto a Google map using this tool, but it requires the data have a longitude and latitude. Anyone know an easy way to do this in Google docs, since I've got some 4,000 rows?

Here's a sample row:

XAVIER'S MARKET, INC | 290 N FRONT ST | NEW BEDFORD | MA | $129,692.44

June 12 2010

17:55

How would you convert a huge amount of street addresses to coordinates(lat, long)?

This was a good question on NICAR-L that seemed worth preserving.

How would you convert a huge amount of street addresses to coordinates(lat, long)? I have ArcView and open source tools.

Tags: geocoding
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