Interactive Media Mobile

Location-aware web content in the cultural sector and Fire Eagle

Some readers may know that I and several members of my team are hard at work on a range of location-centric cultural sector data applications. We have been combining data sources from across the sector and government and building new ways of traversing very diverse data sets. (If you are going to be at Museums and the Web 2008 in Montreal you will be able to get a sneak preview!)

One of the primary challenges has been making sense of ‘place’.

The notion of ‘everyware‘ has been around for a while and I’ve been having a lot of fun experimenting with my new mobile phone which automatically geo-tags images taken with it. Whilst the phone also has a web browser in it, the content that I view in the browser does not automatically adjust to my location.

For example, whilst the OCLC’s Worldcat can tell me how far I need to travel to find Everyware in the nearest library (much better in the US), I have to enter that information manually. Surely if I have a GPS-ready device, it should already know where I am?

Of course none of us want our devices telling all and sundry where we are at all times. Privacy, despite what we might Twitter or update in our Facebook status bar, is all too important, even though our mobile phones are already transmitting our locations (at least in a triangulatable (!!) format).

A few days ago Yahoo! launched the beta programme for Fire Eagle. Fire Eagle operates a little like a Twitter for location. Users update their location at will, but more importantly can finely control the privacy of their location, and importantly permanently erase their data.

More importantly, though, Fire Eagle as a platform offers an API for developers. The API operates in two ways – firstly developers can build applications that dynamically announce or post location data to Fire Eagle (for example, a SMS to Fire Eagle applet or a mobile GPS to Fire Eagle applet for mobile phones). Secondly, the API allows web developers to build dynamic web applications that read a user’s Fire Eagle location data and render content appropriately. For authentication it uses OAuth.

There are many exciting possibilities – dynamically generated walking trails being an obvious cultural tourism application (“you are near the site of . . . ” or “artist X was born here, here is some of their work”) – and although the potential audience for these experiments is currently miniscule, over the next decade with the mass market penetration of cheap GPS chips in everything and blanket wireless coverage in urban areas, it is essential for the cultural sector to get experimenting.