Building location aware websites

On the 24th of July I gave a presentation to the Canberra Web Standards Group on Building location aware websites. Here are the slides and notes from my presentation.

Slides 1-2
Welcome I’m Paul Hagon a web developer at the National Library of Australia. This is my twitter handle if you are twittering about my presentation while  I talk

Slide 3

Slides 4-5
Traditionally websites have required the user to make a choice about their location. This is stored in a cookie or within the user login.

Slides 6-9
There are applications where I don’t want to make the choice. I am travelling and in a different location and I want the information that is relevant to my current environment. A perfect example of this is the weather. I’m primarily interested in the weather and forecast for where I am.

Slide 10
The W3C geolocation group released their first working draft in late 2008. Their final recommendation is due to be released at the end of 2009. Their goal is to:

define a secure and privacy-sensitive interface for using client-side location information in location-aware Web applications

Slide 11
Location detection takes a variety of forms. The first form is an IP address lookup. If you are lucky this might give you the users location to the nearest town or state. It is generally fairly inaccurate. The next option is to determine the location of your wi-fi network router. If the user is on a cellular network, their location can be triangulated by  using the tower ID’s. These methods can be very accurate (to within a couple of hundred metres). The final method is to use a dedicated GPS chip and obtain a satellite fix. This is accurate to within a few metres.

Slide 12-13
Mobile phones started to have built in GPS chips, but it was really the iPhone that opened up the possibilities in this area. The problem was, the location sensors could only be accessed through dedicated iPhone applications written in Objective C. We are web developers and like angle brackets rather than square brackets. It’s a bit of a leap to go to a ‘proper’ programming language

Slide 14-15
Recently 2 developments took place. Firstly Firefox 3.5 was released. In amongst the newer JavaScript engine and native HTML5 audio and vide support, it also featured native geolocation functions. The iPhone operating system was also upgraded to OS 3.0 and with it, access to the iPhone location sensors was made available to mobile Safari.  Both of these implemementations followed the draft W3C guidelines. Native geolocation is also available within development builds of Opera and Fennec (mobile Firefox).

Slide 16
So where does this leave Internet Explorer (and the desktop version of Safari)? Users of these browsers can download Google Gears. This is typically used to offline access to things like gmail, Google docs etc. It also makes available some geolocation functions, although they are slightly different to the W3C recommendations.

Slide 17
A user can also use a service such as Fire Eagle to update their location, and this web service has an API that allows the data to be shared between sites (for example automatically updating your twitter location).

Slide 18-20
Privacy is a major concern. A user has to opt in to sharing their location with a web site. These services store IP addresses, the access point information and a unique identifier (for a period of 2 weeks). No identifiable information is passed to or stored by these services. You probably have in place something in your privacy policies to cover storing log files. We tend to know a fair bit of general location information about our users anyway from things like Google Analytics reports.

Slide 21
Users start broadcasting their location through services like Google Latitude or brightkite. This raises many more privacy issues, and they have options to allow a user to decide just how much information they wish to share.

Slide 22-30
The code to make it happen. Create a function that we can call from an event like a page load or event click. Make a location call. If the call is successful, extract the latitude and longitude. If it is unsuccessful (may not be able to get a signal or the service may not be able to resolver your location) do something else.

Slide 31
Reverse geogoding is the process of turing a latitude and longitude into a human readable form.

Slide 32-37
An example of a location aware application. It’s a mashup searching for photos in a particular location. Firstly in Safari (a non native geolocation aware browser) the user has to pick the location. In Firefox 3.5 (a native geolocation aware browser) the user can ask to be taken directly to their location. The browser asks for their permission before making the call. The location is accurate to a few hundred metres. Now some of the results aren’t totally accurate. It is searching via a name as there is very little location data in the records.

Slide 38
There are 3 instances of Parkes on the page – Parkes ACT, Parkes NSW and a name, Henry Parkes. It can’t differentiate between them

Slide 39
There is a service called Yahoo Placemaker where you can pass in data and it will return the geographic information for that data.

Slide 40
Passing in Parkes Australia we get the relevant geographic information for both locations of Parkes

Slide 41-43
Placemaker also accepts a URL as input. Lets pass some information from Open Australia into it. Open Australia is an application that allows users to see what their members of parliament have been doing. We could add location aware services to this to instantly be able to select the senator for the area we are currently in, or to find all the references to the area you are in, to see what decisions have been made that may have an effect on you.

Slide 44
Placemaker extracts the location names from the text of the page and returns any associated location data

Slides 45-48
Is this usable or is it still too cutting edge? iPhone usage is small (in the overall website usage), but users update quickly and have the capability to use location aware services. Firfox usage is also small, but as it has just been released it will take a little time to build up a user base. Firefox users tend to update rapidly. Users whose browsers have the capability to use location based services if they install Google Gears is more than 95% of our visitors.

Slides 49-50
I expect to see many more location based websites in the future. This presentation is available on slideshare & the references I’ve used are up on delicious. Thank you.



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2 responses to “Building location aware websites”

  1. Hi Paul,

    A great introduction to location aware services! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Nice level of information here. There is so much data around about this subject that sometimes you cannot see the wood for the trees but you have pitched this at just the right level so that the lay person can understand – thank you!