Mission: Explore puts the fun back into checking in

April 16, 2012 | Leave a comment

For the past few years, my friend Helen Steer has been working with the Geography Collective on Mission: Explore, a new way to promote exploration and curiosity:

Mission:Explore is a game, but not as you know it. There are two aims to the game. One is to collect points and unlock rewards. The other is to experience the world in new ways by doing vitally important random and warped challenges. The more missions you do the more rewards you’ll unlock and the more fun you’ll have during your stay on planet Earth.

Mission: Explore’s web application is an inventive take on the geo-gamification meme we’ve seen for years with the likes of Foursquare and Gowalla. Rather than checking in with brands and getting offers, participants are encouraged to travel 100 metres without being seen or put on a show for a security camera controller. And of course, they get rewards and an endorphin rush for doing so.

Because the site’s mostly aimed at kids, there’s less community or real-time interaction than there could be – what if one of the missions was to join up with six other people and solve a puzzle or make a shape? – but I love the humanity of the intention behind it. And the execution is great, although I find myself wondering what it could be with Geoloqi‘s geofencing.

Mission: Explore offers bespoke challenges for private groups, as well as a dead tree version. It’s all been done with a lot of love, and is great fun – to the extent that I wish more adult geo-apps would take a leaf from its book. If I had kids I’d be all over it.

Pinwheel, Outmap and the literally global web

February 17, 2012 | Leave a comment


When I said my final goodbyes to my team at Curverider and switched off for the day, I sat on my sofa and asked myself: what am I going to do next?

I had the beginnings of an answer already. People were beginning to take the web out into the world, rather than consume it at their desks. It seemed reasonable to create a geographic database of stuff – everything from photos and notes through to scientific readings. I called it Outmap. You would be able to browse these thematically, share them privately, or just see what was near you. Free users could post simple pre-defined kinds of content (which could be commented on and shared, of course). Paid users would be able to create new fields and potentially store entire databases with Outmap as their core. Each set of notes could be crowdsourced (e.g. to create a map of free wifi hotspots) or published (for your own notes, memories and photos).

Technologically, it was the right moment. Google Maps had become one of the most-used APIs on the web. The iPhone 3G had come out the previous summer, and was the first really mass market smartphone to have onboard GPS. And the HTML5 geolocation API had just been released, allowing any web page to ask for the current physical location of the user.

Business-wise, I had strong interest from environmental organizations, rights groups, top-tier universities and other great enterprise users. But alas, for non-technical reasons too irritating to get into here, I had to shelve it. (I did briefly reuse some of the back-end code for Onflood, an experiment in geotagged conversations.)

Three years later, enter Pinwheel.

I don’t know the team and had nothing to do with the product. Nor do I want to imply that this is what I would have released – Pinwheel looks beautiful, and the team (one of the co-founders is Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr) seem to have imbued the concept with a scrapbooky, airy quality that complements the name. But I am pleased that someone has built a service with a similar thought process.

I can see people leaving notes for their friends around the cities that they love. I can even see sending a set of mapped notes to Celia (“do you remember when we ..?”). It’s a lovely concept, that is one great use for the location web.

We’ve been so focused on social for the past ten years or so, that we seem to have forgotten the other networks that tie us together. Locations are interesting: you can represent them as discrete data (a latitude and a longitude), they have strong ties to who we are (where we were born, where we grew up, where we had our first kiss, our favorite view, etc), and can be used with social information to allow you to both express yourself and discover new things and places. Review sites and apps like Foursquare have only scratched the surface; in the future, the location web may be a new fabric of information that almost literally sits on top of everything.

Laws, sausages and browser geolocation

July 6, 2011 | 7 comments

Compass InlayI was emailed a question about the browser geolocation test I wrote a while back, and I thought I’d respond to it here. If you haven’t seen it, go check it out, and come back.

If you’re not prepared for it, it’s a creepy little feature. How on earth is browser-based geolocation so accurate? Desktops and laptops mostly don’t contain GPS devices, and IP addresses shouldn’t be enough to pin your location down quite so well.

The answer is also more than a little bit unsettling. There are two main companies who provide software-only location services: Skyhook and Google. Here’s an excerpt from Skyhook’s “how it works” page:

To quickly and reliably arrive at accurate location results, the Core Engine collect raw data from Wi-Fi access points, GPS satellites and cell towers with advanced hybrid positioning algorithms. By leveraging the strengths of more than one underlying position technology, Skyhook’s Core Engine provides the best possible location available in any environment.

In other words, they check your GPS equipment, where that exists, and fall back to checking your environment against a complicated database of wireless access points correlated to location.

These databases are hugely strategically important on the application web. You may remember that Google was forced to stop collecting this information with their Street View vans in Germany. At the time, they claimed it was an accident, but Google is actively preventing Android handset manufacturers for incorporating Skyhook technology for data collection reasons. Check out this detail from the lawsuit between Skyhook and Google:

At 10:46 Google’s Mike Chu had replied, saying ” I think we need to understand how much better Skyhook actually is.”

At 2:36 Google’s Zhengrong Ji replied and said “It’s sad to see first Apple, now Motorola moving away from us, which means less collection” for Google’s location database.

In other words, it’s reasonable to infer that Android handsets are quietly still collecting wireless access point information correlated to location. This information is strategically important, and the company with the most accurate information will win.

It’s a simple feature. But behind the scenes, there’s a battle going on. It turns out that browser geolocation is like laws and sausages: it’s better not to see them being made.

Photo: Compass Inlay by Steve Snodgrass, released under a Creative Commons license.


March 30, 2011 | 5 comments

OnfloodFriday night was sleepless for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about a simple idea I had, riffing off of Color and some of the technology I’d built for OutMap:

What if you could hook messages, photos, files and metadata to a particular location in space, and create an ad-hoc messageboard with this information based on where you were in the world?

I couldn’t put the idea down – so I built it.

To start, you set a location, either explicitly (by typing in the address) or implicitly (through your device’s location functionality). Onflood looks at the proximity of the messages around you, and sets an appropriate radius that it’ll draw messages from. For example, if there’s a lot of activity right near you, it’ll probably set a tight radius: if you’re on Edinburgh’s Princes St, you’ll only see messages within a mile of you. Meanwhile, more sporadic activity lends itself to a wider radius: at the time of writing, if you’re on Market St in San Francisco, messages are drawn from up to 606 miles away from you. This way no user is ever made to feel alone or like there’s no activity. You can, of course, manually widen or tighten the radius. You can also jump to other locations by entering a new address or clicking on messages around you.

My hope is that it’ll be useful for conference backchannels, neighborhood-specific information, and as a message-passing medium for local swarms like demonstration protests.


Onflood takes your location using the HTML5 geolocation API, which means that if you’re browsing on a GPS-capable device, it’ll use that, and otherwise it works out your location based on IP address and other ambient details. All compatible web browsers ask you for this information, so it’s never done behind your back, and you can always choose to manually enter a location instead.

Both geocoding latitudes and longitude coordinates from place names, and reverse-geocoding names from coordinates, are handled by OpenStreetMap’s awesome Nominatim API. I’d previously used Yahoo APIs for OutMap, but I found the OpenStreetMap endpoints easy to work with, largely accurate and developer-friendly. Plus, of course, you can run Nominatim from your own servers as well as OpenStreetMap’s hosted version. Open source wins out here.

So what’s to come? Right now, authentication is handled solely from Twitter. This is clearly something that I intend to change – OpenID and, yes, Facebook are to follow. I also have yet to implement photos and files (which will both be stored using Amazon S3). Finally, RSS and ActivityStreams feeds are also required.

You can think of this as a starting point. I’ll keep it up and running, and will continue iterating it. If there’s demand for it, I even have a solid business model in mind that will make it more than self-sufficient without annoying existing users.

Give it a try, and let me know what you think.

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