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February 28 2011

13:30

How to Remove Location Information from Mobile Photos

Prabhas Pokharel contributed research and writing to this post.

In a previous Idea Lab post, we described how to add location information to mobile content, including images and stories. For some reports, location information adds value, context, and interest to venue-specific reports. But today, we talk about how to remove that same location information. This is also detailed, step by step, in the screencast below.

There are many reasons why one would not want to include location information on content or images, but at the top of the list is the need for security and privacy. For journalists, citizen reporters, and activists to be secure in insecure regions -- especially when reporting in repressive media environments -- careful planning and strategic considerations are required.

How does location information get added to smartphone photos? All cell phones have a small amount of storage space on the SIM card. This is where contact information, call history, SMS messages, and, of course, mobile photos are saved. Most smartphones also store the time photos are taken and may include location information, such as the photos' latitude and longitude coordinates.

Step One: Check to see if location information is being captured.

The first step is to see if location information is, indeed, being captured and stored with your images. Most pictures from smartphones today have location information stored in the metadata.

To see whether there is location data stored in your photo, you will need to use a tool that reads location-based EXIF data. On most smartphones, you can check this via the photo gallery. From the gallery, press Menu to get details. If you can't tell from your camera or smartphone alone, you can also check on your computer.

On a Mac, open the image in Preview, click Tools, select the Inspector tab, and go to the GPS section where the latitude and longitude of the image are (potentially) shown.

In Windows, right click on the image, click Properties, select the Details tab, and scroll down to the GPS section, where location may be shown.

If neither of these options work, you can also use an EXIF viewer. Just upload the image in question, and the viewer can determine what, if any, location information is available. Again, if specific latitude and longitude information is available, it will be shown here.

Step Two: Remove the location data.

Once you know whether your image has location information attached to it, you can now go about removing it. The safest way to remove EXIF data is to upload your photo to the computer and remove the data using software.

This can be done with free or trial tools. For example, you can download a tool called PhotoLinker, which is designed to let you edit and remove location information.

To remove EXIF data in PhotoLinker, use the program to open the image and view its location information. You will also see a detailed map and a list of all other tagged data, including a timestamp. Using this software, you can remove or change the information under Photos/Remove GPS information, and re-save the image before sharing or publishing it. (Watch this in action in the screencast above.)

In addition to the location it comes from, EXIF data may also reveal other information about your phone such as its make and model. There may be instances where you want to retain certain information, while removing other data. For example, you may want to leave in the make and model of the phone as well as the date and time of the photo, but remove the location information.

Such selective editing of this EXIF data can be done. There are some apps available on iPhone and Android that offer EXIF manipulation on a device, such as EXIF Wizard and others.

Step Three: Check your defaults.

Another way to remove location data is to have your photo sharing site scrub the location information for you. The two most popular sites in the U.S., Facebook and Flickr, both do this. As of last year, it was the default policy on each service.

The Flickr policy can be accessed here. Under "Defaults for New Uploads," make sure that "Import EXIF location data" says "No." This will ensure that the default for new photos is to not import any location information that may be on the metadata for the image.

However, do note that for sensitive photographs, importing to Flickr still contains risks. The location data removal is done at Flickr's servers and anyone able to access your photograph while it is being uploaded to Flickr will be able to access its embedded location information.

The same is true of Facebook, which -- for now, at least -- strips location data off all images.

Do you have any additional experience using EXIF data? Do you have any stories about when removing location data came in handy -- or would have? Please leave your insights in the comments below.

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.

July 19 2010

17:16

South African Paper Uses Mobile Services to Engage Readers


In Grahamstown, South Africa, getting and sharing news is a mobile experience. Grocott's Mail, a local paper, incorporates mobile phones into many aspects of its news service -- from disseminating headlines via SMS, to encouraging readers to text in their opinions and making it a part of a Knight News Challenge-winning citizen journalist training program.

The paper, which sells 6,400 copies each week, is a good example of how mobiles can create a richer news experience for both readers and publishers. Idea Lab contributor Harry Dugmore, is a professor at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. He runs the Iindaba Ziyafika citizen journalism program with Grocott's Mail.

"The inspiration for the whole project is trying to democratize news and information and put it into the hands of more people, give people more access to it, and create more participation -- not just one-way, top-down communication," he said.

Creating Reader Engagement

Grocott's Mail, which published its first print edition in 1870, launched an online version of the paper in 2006. The website, now called Grocott's Mail Online, uses a customized content management system called Nika that is built on Drupal and allows for a smooth computer-to-mobile transition.

Grocott's Mail Online has a page for SMS opinions from readers in addition to the normal editorial content; readers can text the paper with their responses to articles, tips for stories, or general information and see those texts translated into non-text speak and put online or in the paper. Nika sorts SMSs and incorporates them directly into the newspaper's system, automating what had previously been a manual process. The SMS pages let local citizens share their opinions, and see their words in print.

Another way in which local citizens are engaged is through the paper's citizen journalist training program. However, Dugmore is quick to differentiate the citizen journalists from the general online community saying, "We think journalism and citizen journalism is quite a special thing, and we make quite an effort to distinguish it from user generated content and from community participation."

The six-week training program teaches students how to frame a story, how to create a narrative, how to access sources, and how to interview them. (Read more about it by going back through Dugmore's posts here.) So far, the course has been taught four time and, according to Dugmore, the program has evolved to be an important part of the paper. "We've gone from getting two pieces of citizen journalism a month to one for almost every issue," he said.

The citizen journalists use mobile phones as a supplementary tool in their work, not as a substitute for old-fashioned journalism techniques. Dugmore explained that although the students use their mobiles for sharing breaking SMS news alerts and taking photographs, they've often found it easier to take notes with a paper and pencil and then write out the stories on Grocott's Mail's computers. However, he said that they still train the citizen journalists on using the phones as cameras and for audio recording, and that the use of mobile phones is part of the curriculum.

Getting The Word Out

For readers who want to stay up to date on the latest headlines, Grocott's Mail has an SMS headline alert system. The free program, which users text to sign up for, sends out the paper's top headlines twice a week. (The print edition comes out every Tuesday and Friday, as do the SMS headline alerts.) The program launched a few months ago, and Dugmore said there are several hundred subscribers so far.

In addition to SMS alerts, the paper is also developing another way to reach its readers -- using mobile instant messaging to directly send the news to their subscribers. Dugmore said this will be a good addition to the current SMS headline system because it will give subscribers a more thorough news experience, while being a cost-effective news dissemination tool for the paper (which covers the cost of the SMSs).

"The other nice thing about IM is that you're not restricted, like SMS, to just headlines," he said. "If you want to, you can send a whole IM or the whole story "

The paper has already developed a GoogleTalk version of the instant messaging system and is currently finalizing a MXit version; they plan to launch the tool by the end of the summer, meaning that users without high-end phones can still have what Dugmore calls a "smartphone experience."

Grocott's Mail's initiatives show how mobile phones can be a great way to keep readers engaged.

"We were looking for ways to create more spaces where people could get news and information about things that were useful, and [also] looking for ways that possibly people could come together to see if there were common issues or areas where they might be able to make a difference in their own lives," Dugmore said.

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