Location, Location, Location

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 12:13 PM

I tend to walk very slowly when I take a hike some place. Slow enough to test the patience of even a fairly relaxed fellow walker. Why? I'll admit it: I am a shutterbug. I take thousands of photographs, photographs that eventually end up in Apple's iPhoto. This is well and good, save that the quantity makes it sometimes hard to locate a photo later on. GPS is my solution to fix that, and if you create any kind of digital documents away from your desk, it should be on your list of solutions too.

The idea I am referring to is hidden behind a Web 2.0-sounding label that probably would make a lot of people who don’t dig Digg or flutter to Flickr ignore it. It is called “Geotagging.” The concept is simple: you take almost any GPS unit with you while you travel around (a wearable one may make the most sense). Most GPS units keep a log of the path that you travel, marking down the coordinates every thirty seconds or so. After your trip, one can connect that GPS unit to a PC to transfer the log into a several standard formats, including the one used by Google Earth. Downloading a log of a trip may be useful in and of itself if one needs to retrace his steps, but it can also do something much more interesting: add those coordinates to digital documents, such a photos. Since most cameras record the time when they take a picture, a variety of software programs have been written to read the picture’s time and then analyze it against the log that a GPS unit has produced. With fairly good results, that can tell the user where the photo was taken, and, better yet, add that information to the image’s metadata.

“Yikes,” you might say, “what is metadata?” Metadata is not as scary as it sounds and, for those of you who developed a phobia during a long ago philosophy class, it has nothing to do with metaphysics. Metadata is simply an additional bit of information tagged to a file — a photo, Word document, spreadsheet or what have you — that provides useful information such as the document’s author, the time of creation and so on. Some file formats, such as JPEG, include metadata support for longitude and latitude coordinates such as those from your GPS unit. Running the software to merge the log with photos turns the photos into photos that “know” where they were taken.

Today’s most exciting new computer software can take advantage of this additional metadata. For example, Apple’s Spotlight desktop search engine can search by location using coordinate metadata. Or, using a few simple programs, one can take a bunch of photos with coordinates and map them on Google Earth. Want to find the photo you took right off of I-70 in the middle of Illinois? No problem, just go down the highway and look for the little camera icon stuck on the location where one took the photo.

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This is already great, but this example is only scratching the surface. Imagine if a laptop with a GPS device in it automatically added such data to Word documents. A travel weary salesperson would not have to think to bring up his next client's recent orders before arriving at their office — the computer could automatically bring up a list of geotagged files related to that location. A person recording interviews could quickly find every recording made in Jacksonville, Florida. Moreover, as more devices become GPS enabled, perhaps a smart phone could automatically call home and request every document relevant to a town that a business exec landed in before she arrived, allow her to simply connect her phone to a projector and have the presentations software pick from multiple slides the proper ones for that region.

Geotagging’s possibilities, when combined with a multitude of GPS enabled devices and smart applications able to handle geographically savvy files will make the hassles of dealing with location related data virtually disappear. With the price of GPS units now under $100 and desktop search engines becoming the norm on all the major OSes, we are on the cusp of an exciting journey. Let the geotagging begin.

Timothy R. Butler is editor-in-chief of OFB. You can reach him at tbutler@ofb.biz.