Cell Phone GPS Tracking Is Being Used By FEMA

According to the Sprint website, this telecommunications giant has made a deal with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that will supply the disaster relief organization with 2,000 GPS tracking units for day-to-day field work and emergency use. The acquisition of the cell phone GPS tracking devices comes at an opportune time for FEMA who is required to have a vehicle tracking system in place by the hurricane season, a season which has all but passed. The addition of these devices should make FEMA much more agile and useful in the field, increasing their ability to serve the public by responding quickly and efficient to natural disasters.

The devices being deployed are Motorola i365 phones (pictured to the right) and cost around $40. Here is a quick little blurb describing this rugged, useful mobile phone:
i365 Sprint GPS Tracking Cell Phone

Released for Sprint, the Motorola i365 is a rugged and durable handset certified for military specification requirements including humidity, blowing rain, dust, shock and vibration. It features Nextel’s push-to-talk communication for quick conversations with up to 20 members of families, friends, and coworkers. Featuring an embedded Global Positioning System (GPS) chip, the i365 uses E911 emergency location services to get audible and visual turn-by-turn driving directions, mapping locations, or conducting local searches.

This cell phone is a great fit for the conditions and circumstances in which FEMA does most of its work. Many more “refined” mobile devices just would not cut it in the harsh conditions where the Nextel i365 flourishes.

In addition to these 2,000 GPS tracking cell phones FEMA is also receiving access to two of Sprint’s products that are going to help them use these cell phone to their fullest potential – Nextel Direct Connect and TeleNav Track. Let’s now turn our attention to these two services and see just how FEMA stands to benefit from the real time tracking and communication capabilities that they offer.

What Is TeleNav Track?

TeleNav Track is a very useful and complete cell phone software package that can assist business and organizations in a wide range of activities related to highly mobile work forces, integrating workforce management, GPS tracking, and navigation features into one package.  The main goals of the software are to boost productivity, control costs, and the manage risk.

Boosting productivity is obviously the goal of any profit based business, but it is also an incredibly important characteristic of effective disaster relief agencies like FEMA.  GPS integrated software like TeleNav Track helps businesses boost productivity by doing three things very well.  The first is that it gets employees to locations quickly and effectively.   We are all very familiar with GPS navigation devices and how useful they can be in helping us navigate new and unfamiliar territory.

The second is that is relays the employees position back to a central dispatching center which can keep track of all the moving parts in the complex world of mobile businesses.  The idea of a central hub where information is gathered and then decisions are made is even more important in a disaster situation.  Not only does the data need to be sent from the GPS enabled cell phone, but information must also be sent to the cell phone so that field agents can be kept abreast of the situation and their tasks.  The ability to see all these moving pieces and to make good decisions with that data is the second benefit of a service like TeleNav Track.

The third and final think that this does is that it helps business reduce the amount of waste engaged in by employees. If employees know that you can know their exact location in real time then they are less likely to goof off when on the clock.  It is a very powerful tool as an employee to go up to an employee and ask them why they spent 2 hours parked at a shopping mall when they should have been out on the street working when they know that you know that that was exactly what they were doing.

In addition to being able to boost productivity, GPS tracking management systems like TeleNav Track also help you reduce costs associated with doing business.   Just think about this one a second and you will see several ways in which you can see an immediate benefit to your companies bottom line or help ensure tax payer dollars are being well spent (in the case of FEMA).  As was mentioned above, GPS tracking devices can help keep employees more accountable for their day to day activity.  This increases productivity because it gets people working more, but it also helps reduce costs because you will no longer be paying people to do nothing.

Another key element that TeleNav Track offers is the ability to do a lot of paperwork electronically.  The savings that this type of switch can generate is certainly nothing to sniff at.  Electronic time cards have helped companies reduce pay roll administration costs by as much as 80% – which is money that could be poured back into the business.  While this really doesn’t have much to do with the GPS side of these devices, it is the same information delivery system that sends the GPS coordinates from your cell phone that also sends out electronic documents as well.

And finally, many GPS cell phone tracking systems help companies manage risk by putting their eyes on their assets at all times.  They can know how many of their employees are out on the field, where their vehicles are, and make decisions about the best way to use these assets to better the business or to better serve the people.

What is Nextel Direct Connect?

Probably the best way to introduce you to Nextel Direct Connect is to show this video clip:

Aside from being a really cool feature for any cell phone, GPS-enable or not, Nextel Direct Connect also offers three main benefits to businesses:

  • Accomplish more quickly. Being able to connect quickly with co-workers to in just a few seconds to share information is powerful when decisions need to made quickly and information is in a particularly fluid state.
  • Keep conversations quick and simple. In and out conversations get more accomplished and force employees to boil down their content into potent sentences laced with meaning and information. Every word is heard and business can move at the speed of thought.
  • Talk to many at once.  Being able to send instructions out to 20 people at a time is something that few normal mobile phones can accomplish – yet this is exactly what the i365 cell phone is able to do with Nextel Direct Connect.

When this technology is combined with the TeleNav Track system you get a powerful one-two punch for the folks at FEMA.

Will FEMA GPS Cell Phone Tracking Work?

I certainly hope so.  The technology is certainly useful and I can see no good reason why they can’t make full use of these powerful cell phone GPS tracking devices to better serve the American people in times of dire need.  The combination of push to talk technology with the powerful GPS management software should provide phenomenal results for FEMA.  We’ll just see if this turns out to be a good use of government GPS tracking or if it ends up being misused and under utilized.  Only time will tell.

New Teen GPS Tracking Devices From Spy Centre Security

Spy Centre Security, a GPS tracking and “spy” device store has announced a new line of GPS tracking devices that they are marketing specifically for parents of teenagers.  According to their press release they have devices starting at $199 the “[make] it possible to get constant updates on your teenagers’ car.”  My initial thought was that if they have a real time teen GPS tracking device for that price then they are going to be pretty competitive in the tracking market.  The only other real time device that I am aware of is the Zoombak and that is retailing right now on Amazon for $125.  Most other real time trackers are going to cost from around $250 and up.

But upon further investigation, it appears that the claims made in the press release are a little misleading.  To those that don’t understand the distinction between a data logger (passive GPS) and a real time tracker (active GPS) could have been duped by the claim made by the following sentence:

At Spycentre.com we now sell GPS products starting at just $199 making it possible to get constant updates on your teenagers’ car.

(While this sentence does come from a site not associated with Spy Centre Security, it does contain their contact information and is very similar to a press release posted on the companies website on September 11, 2009. This leads me to believe that the message is legitimate.)

Consumers need to know the difference between a data logger and a real time tracker if they are to really understand how to best track their teen and to sift through clever marketing attempts of GPS manufacturers.

Teen GPS Tracking Data Loggers

A data logger is a GPS tracking device that simply records the position of the device at set intervals determined by the user or by the device itself.  In order to access the information that the device records, you must retrieve the device and download the contents onto your computer.  GPS tracking software then interacts with the data and plots it on an interactive Google Maps like interface.

Canmore USB GPS Tracking Stick

This type of tracking is great when you only need to know somethings trip after the fact.  For example, if you enjoy launching hobby rockets and you want to know how high and how fast your rocket travels then using a data logger is a great way to get that information.

One of the newest types of data loggers to hit the market are GPS tracking sticks.  These devices are as large as a USB stick and very similar in build and shape.  They even have a male USB connection built in for a simple downloading process.  Just plug the device in and watch the software take over and do the work of analyzing the data for you.

Certainly powerful stuff, but not what most parents think of when they want to know where there teen is. These devices can be great for getting a good understanding of your teen’s driving habits – but they are not good for knowing where your teen is when they are late in getting home. They are not good when a natural disaster strikes and you need to know where your teen is right now. For that, you would need a real time GPS tracker.

With that said, a data logger is what is currently being offered for $199 on the Spy Centre Security website. I wonder how their tracking stick compares with this $145 one from Amazon?

Teen Real Time GPS Tracking

A real time GPS tracking device is one that is able to send its position information from the device to a third party so that the position of the device can be seen in real time.  This is what most parents are going to think about when they are looking into GPS trackers for their teenager.  They are also fairly expensive devices that will end up costing you hundreds of dollars up front and a regular subscription fee for the data transfers between your tracking device and the company’s servers.

The real time trackers available through Spy Centre Security are certainly expensive.  The cheapest models that they offer run $450 and have a service plan of $30 a month according to the press release mentioned above.  The first year of use will run $810 – a steep price to pay for being able to track your teen’s car with GPS.

The Cell Phone Tracking Solution

The obvious solution to this issue is to find a cheaper, real time tracking solution for parents of teenagers.  The best solution that I have come across is to turn a teen’s cell phone into a GPS tracking device.  Many of today’s cell phones already have a GPS antenna inside the phone that allows them to pick up GPS signals from outer space, eliminating the most obvious hurdle off the get go.  And since most teenagers want the latest and greatest cell phone you know that they probably already have a GPS enabled cell phone on them right now.

All that you now need to do is download some GPS tracking software for cell phones and you have a fully functional GPS tracking system in the palm of your teen’s hand.  There are plenty of paid services out there for parents looking at a paid option.  Most cell phone carriers offer something that you can take a look at that will add a nominal monthly fee to your cell bill.

Another option open to parents is to go with free GPS tracking software for cell phones.  This might take a little more work on your part of monitoring and installing the system, but can you beat free?

In the end, whatever you decide to do with your teen is really up to you.  Teen GPS tracking devices are relatively new, but that should not deter parents from taking advantage of this new and powerful technology to help them raise honest, law-abiding children who drive safely and come home on time.  While some might balk at tracking their teen with GPS, here at GPS For Today we feel like there are plenty of reasons why parents have every right to track a teen driver.  If you are interested in reading more about what we have to say on this topic here are some of the more important articles:

GPS Equipped Census Worker Murdered, Is It GPS Tracking Related?

In September a brutal murder occurred that could be related to the government ‘s  stance on marking every residential dwelling in America with a GPS tracking device for the upcoming 2010 census.  [A description of how the body was found is to follow.  It is a little shocking so please only read on if you are interested, otherwise skip to the next paragraph.] The part-time, temporary census worker was found hanging from a tree in a rural Kentucky cemetery.   The body, identified as the remains of a 51 year old cancer survivor Bill Sparkman, was stripped naked by the murder(s) and his hands and feet were bound with duct tape.  His eyes were also duct tapped and his mouth was gagged with something resembling red rag according to the person that reported finding the body.

According to coroner reports, the word “fed” was written on the deceased’s chest.  His census bureau credentials were also taped to his forehead and shoulder area.  These two clues clearly indicate that the murder(s) were either enraged to their despicable deed because he was working with the federal government or that they want the authorities to think that the murder because of his connections with the government.

But what is it about what Mr. Sparkman was doing with the government census bureau that would so fill a person with hate that they would consider murder?

From what I can tell, the deceased, Bill Sparkman, was involved in a push by the government to mark the front door of every residential dwelling in America. While many conservative conspiracy theorists are attacking the current administration over the use of ACORN to do the marking, the actual plan to do so dates back over 2.5 years to no later than July 2006, a time when the Bush administration was still in office.

The idea at the time was to send out temporary staff to gather the exact location of the front door of every residential home in America. This information would be useful to ensure that every household would be counted in the 2010 census, but I am sure that there were additional benefits that the government garner from this move. One of them would certainly be aiding them in identifying tax household that are not reporting information on their tax returns.

It is my guess that this GPS marking activity was what that sent Bill Sparkman out into the Kentucky countryside in September and would eventually lead to his death. I have no way of verifying this information and have not read any reports confirming it – it is simply my guess. If I am right, it might be the first government GPS tracking related death in American history.

My theory goes like this. The deceased was just doing his job going out and marking homes with his GPS tracking device. Part of his instruction was to be relatively extensive in his search of homes – identifying whether or not certain buildings on a property were residential in nature and if someone was living inside them. My guess is that someone took extreme offense at his presence and confronted him about his presences on their property and his use of the GPS tracking unit.

A brief exchange occurred where things got heated and the deceased was attacked. He was then killed for some reason and then his body was dumped in the cemetery as described above.

This would be very sad if true, but I think that just the idea of it warrants a closer look at the use of this GPS information by the government to see if there is any good that can come from it.

Good Government GPS Tracking

We have already discussed what good government GPS tracking implants can do in a previous post, but what about simpler GPS tracking data? Will non real time tracking data also be useful in the hands of the government? The following is a story from NPR from April of 2006 discussing the government’s planned use of GPS to mark all the residential areas in the US. It lists some interesting things that are certainly worthy of consideration.

If the player does not load you can listen or read the story here: Census Bureau Adopts GPS to Find American Homes

This is the flood map mentioned in the story that the GIS director created with the GPS data that her city had collected:

Government GPS Map Flood Threat

I had never thought of using GPS data in this way, but apparently there are a lot of smart people using this information who can see all the wonderful ways that governments can use this type of GPS to better inform their citizenry about natural disasters. Just think of all the good that would have come of this if it could be used during the wildfire season in Southern California, or in the hurricane season along the gulf coast, or when the Mississippi or one of its tributaries decides to flood. The government could reliably and efficiently notify its citizens about their impending danger, all thanks to the GPS information gathered by a government employee with a hand-held GPS tracking device.

Wouldn’t that be good?

Evil Government GPS Tracking

Then there is the bad that could be done with this type of tracking.  One conservative website [Infowars.com] already mentioned one of them in a recent article from their site.  They write:

The 2% of Americans, who have served military duty at some point in life, are very familiar with the most common use of GPS target painting. The other 98% of Americans might want to pick up a book on the subject, such as The Precision Revolution: GPS and the Future of Aerial Warfare

The idea is that the government would use the GPS information to wage war against their own citizens.  While this is unlikely that they would fire missiles from planes at our homes (after all, that is a really expensive way to kill one family) it does mean that they can break down your door with some serious accuracy if ever a police state becomes the norm in America.

The government could also sell your information on the open market, a notion that we discussed when examining the bad governments can do with GPS tracking implants.  While this does seem terrible, it almost seems inevitable since the citizens have a right to all the intellectual property that the government creates.  As long as the information isn’t correlated with other information about you that the government has also compiled than that seems less evil than if they did sell the GPS information in that way.

What’s the Verdict?

Is this death GPS tracking related or not?  I certainly don’t know, but it sure seems like it could be.  I personally cannot dream of being so outraged by a census worker’s activity that I would kill them.  Smash up their GPS tracking device – yes.  Intimidate them and scare them off – yes.  Murder them – hell no.  That is just plain wrong and is just as evil as anything that you could think the government would do with your GPS information.  And that is truth you can take to the bank.

Police Use GPS Tracking To Make Bait Cars More Effective

Car theft is a huge problem in the United State. According to some reports, every 25 seconds there is a car somewhere being stolen, with the majority of the thefts occurring in metropolitan areas. This is all about to change as police are getting savvy to emerging technologies and employing GPS tracking devices in specialized bait cars designed to nab would be criminals in the act. How far do you think a thief is going to get with the watchful eyes in the sky peering down on them? Police in cities all across America know that they will not get far.

While the practice of using bait cars is certainly not new, the recent integration of several different technologies together has made them much more effective. Things like real time GPS tracking as well as a few other features generally used in a fleet management context, like remote engine shut off, are now being employed to help police track down bait cars once they have been stolen and nab the suspects. Also, hidden cameras installed inside the vehicle make sure that police are able to gather solid proof that the person they apprehend is in fact the person that toke the car.

As you might suspect, these bait cars are very helpful for police trying to reduce automobile theft. There are four things that are particularly helpful for the police:

  1. Reduce cost associated with operating a bait car sting – In the past, whenever the police would try and use a bait car technique they would always have to have an officer present around the vehicle to make sure that when the car was taken it could be easily tracked and recovered.  Since these vehicles can sit for days without any action, the police would “waste” precious tax payer dollars watching a car.  Now that GPS tracking systems have been installed in these vehicles  the police can know whenever the automobile is on the move, dispatching the closest unit to the scene to take care of the situation.  Once the squad car comes onto the scene the dispatcher can turn off the engine of the bait car and the suspect can be easily apprehended.  This saves metropolitan governments tons of money since they can use existing resources in the field, resources which they are already paying for.
  2. Increase effectiveness in tracking down suspects because of the GPS tracking device – As was mentioned in the previous point, having the GPS coordinates of the stolen vehicle is a very useful for tracking it down and recovering the vehicle.  By using real time GPS tracking for cars, the police will be able to monitor the vehicles movements and capture it on their own terms.  Perhaps they want to wait on the car to see if it taken to a chop so that they can crack down on the larger criminal ecosystem that runs in hot cars – no problem, they can let this happen with confidence knowing that they will know the location of the vehicle at any moment.
  3. Generate an amazing conviction rate – According to one insurance provider involved in these GPS tracking bait cars, Nationwide, the conviction rate is 98 percent for suspects picked up in connection with their use.  That is excellent.
  4. Reduce the number of car thieves – One of the consequences of such a high conviction rate is that less crimes are occurring in cities that use these high tech techniques.  For example, Las Vegas, Nevada has seen an amazing 44 percent reduction in the number of car thefts after just two years of using GPS tracking to recover the stolen vehicles.  Another city, Charlotte, North Carolina, has seen a 20 percent reduction in just one year of use.  This leads me to believe two things about this technique.  The first is that the longer this technique is used the larger the drop in car thefts will be.  The second is that using GPS tracker equipped bait cars is effective because it nabs repeat offenders, taking them off the street and behind bars.  Since only a few thieves are responsible for a large potion of theft this is a very effective tool at reducing the number of thefts in the future.

When police use GPS vehicle tracking they are very effective at convicting criminals, reducing costs, and running a more effective and efficient government.

But this type of tracking is certainly not without its hazards.  The one main thing that could seriously inhibit the polices use of bait cars are GPS tracking blockers.  If a criminal were to use this technology the police would be unable to locate the car.  If they were then to use some sort of cell phone or radio jammer as well then the police would also not be able to shut off the car remotely.  The criminals would win and the police would be out a very expensive tool in the fight against crime. Luckily, many are not aware of GPS blockers or how to effectively use them.

This is another clear example of the good that governments using GPS tracking can accomplish.  Do you think that this is a valid use of GPS tracking by a government agency?  Should the police be limited in doing this?  Is it an appropriate use of tax payer dollars?

Elderly Man Saved By SPOT GPS Tracker

One elderly man is very happy that his son had his SPOT GPS tracker with him when an ATV accident on an annual hunting trip left him unconscious and bleeding from the head.  The accident, which occurred in August this year, came just two days after the unique tracking device was active by his son.

The SPOT GPS tracker is a stand alone real time GPS tracking device that works in a way different from most tracking devices.  Instead of relying upon a cellular network to get its position data out so that it can be tracked it uses commercial satellites to relay this data to interested parties.

It is also specifically designed for outdoor enthusiasts who get away from civilization and cell phone signals.  It has a specially designed 9-1-1 button that will notify local rescue authorities that you are having an emergency and that you need assistance.  You can imagine how useful this feature is for people who in need of assistance when they are miles away from civilization.

Clarence Kolcun was 8 km away from base camp when he lost control of his ATV and rolled the vehicle on top of himself. When his son, Gordon, got to the scene of the accident his father was unconscious and bleeding from the head. Unable to adequately treat his father, he woke him up and drove the 8 km back to the base camp to retrieve the SPOT GPS tracker so that he could activate the 9-1-1 feature.

Twenty minutes after the 9-1-1 button was pushed, the Kolcun family was contacted by search and rescue authorities who inquired about the details of the men using the tracking device as well as some other identifying information like the make and model of their vehicle and the color of their ATVs.

This is by and large the strongest selling point for this type of GPS tracking unit.  Being able to mobilize help in such a short time span is paramount in being able to survive an accident. Clarence was unable to move and could sense that he suffered from internal injuries.  If there was no SPOT GPS tracker then help would have arrived much later than it eventually did.

As you might expect, the emergency personnel were able to locate the injured man and his companion and they were air lifted out of the bush so that the injuries of the injured could be treated.

SPOT GPS Tracker: SOS Device

This device is absolutely fantastic as an SOS GPS tracker.  Because it does not rely on cell phone signals it is able to work in a wide variety of circumstances that would not normally be possible with conventional tracking units.  This story is just one of the many different situations where a product of this nature did save the life of hunter, hiker, climber, or camper – and it certainly won’t be the last.

While these type of devices are certainly not perfect, they do provide a level of safety for outdoor adventurers that is unparalleled by any other device out on the market.  Just take a look at the coverage that this device enjoys:

SPOT GPS Tracker Coverage Map

This means that if you are on an adventure in Australia and you find yourself lost and stranded in the Outback without water and food all you need to do is press your 9-1-1 SOS button and you are going to know that the authorities are going to be notified of your need and given your GPS coordinates sot that they can find you and provide the help that you need.

This type of GPS tracking system is certainly not cheap.  As you can see, the device itself costs around $100 – but that is not the end of the cost associated with this device.  For 1 year of basic service you are going to have to pony up another $100.  While this may seem like a lot right now, I am sure that when something catastrophic happens then it will seem like nothing!

When it comes down to it, the vast majority of people are not going to need a device like this.  Thousands upon thousands of people go out into the wilderness each year and come home without incident.  They simply do not need a GPS device that tracks their movements and alerts family members of their whereabouts.  It is superfluous for these people.

But then every year there are dozens upon dozens of individuals or groups that could definitely benefit from this type of tracking capability.  They have a very serious injury in their party and the difference between life and death can only be a matter of minutes.  It is for these people that the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger are some important for.

Who will these people be?  If you have an elderly person in your hunting or camping party, it could be you.  Or if you have young children on your back packing trip, it could be you.  If you have a first time climber going up the mountain with you, it could be you.  If you attempting a dangerous route, it could be you.  The thing is, it could be any of us at any moment.  We just never know when a stray rock is going to slide off a mountain and strike one of our companions, or a wild animal decide to attack, or a freak weather phenomena blows away all your gear.  Anyone could need the help of a SOS GPS tracker.

That is why we need to walk with out eyes open when we make these types of trips out into the wilderness.  If we have weighed our options and decided that we don’t need the assistance of a GPS tracking device to give us the extra sense of security then we should not buy one.  But when we want that little extra comfort of knowing that help is only a button away – that is when getting a SPOT GPS tracker is the right move.

GPS Cell Phone Tracking Finds Stolen Cell Phone, Catches Criminals

There is recent news that an Apple application called MobileMe has been instrumental in recovering a stolen iPhone and catching the individuals who stole it at gunpoint.  This isn’t the first time that a GPS enabled iPhone has been used to catch criminals red handed, and it certainly won’t be the last.  GPS tracking for cell phones is only going to become more prevalent, and stories like this are going to spread the word about just how powerful GPS is on our mobile devices.

According to reports from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the owner of the iPhone was mugged by two individuals around 1 a.m.  The thieves took the man’s wallet, pin numbers, and iPhone while one of the assailants held what appeared to be a gun.  As the police would later discover, the “gun” was just a pellet pistol.

After handing over his belongings, the victim ran away and called police.  The victim then got on a computer and used MobileMe’s Find My iPhone feature to locate his cell phone.  He presumably passed this information along to the police who were then able to track down the thieves at a gas station.

Even though two suspects were involved in the robbery, three were arrested in connection with the crime.

iphone-thief-1iphone-thief-2iphone-thief-3

GPS Tracking As Theft Recovery

Using GPS tracking as a way to recover lost or stolen property is a great way to make use of this powerful technology.  The example from this news story is just one of many different ways that being able to track  your phone could be useful.  What if your purse gets stolen at a night club with your cell phone it?  Or how about your car?  Or your backpack while you are at school?  Wouldn’t it be great if you could just rush over to a computer and be able to give police laser targeted information about where you think your belongings are?  Of course it would.  That is why we think that the use of GPS tracking in cell phones is such an important thing for consumers to do if they can afford it and are able to do so.

In fact, you don’t even have to use the tracking on the cell phone primarily for theft recovery.  Many of the tracking applications available on mobile devices are social in nature, letting friends or family members know where you are during the course of your day.  If this is the type of thing that appeals to you then it also works great as a GPS theft recovery system as well.  All you would need to do to make use of it would be to go to a computer and log on and check out where your phone is.

If you are using the phone to monitor the driving of a teenager then this too will work in the theft recovery role.  Heck, it could even work in a find a lost cell phone role too since teenagers are so absent minded sometimes.  Again, all you would need is to have the phone turned on and for it to be receiving a signal from cell phone towers.  If these conditions are met then just run over to a computer and you can find out exactly where your phone is through the power of GPS.

What Is MobileMe?

The truth of the matter is there are literally dozens of different GPS tracking and phone location programs for cell phones – but the program used in the this particular example was MobileMe for iPhone.  This is a subscription program that currently runs for $99 a year (~$8.30 a month).  If this were just a GPS tracking application then this would be way over priced, but it isn’t just a tracking app.

It allows iPhone users to sync there data between their personal computer, whether it is a laptop or a desktop.  You are given a single email account (johndoe@me.com) that is always kept up-to-date.  If you check your email on your iPhone while you are out on the town then when you get home that email is going to be marked as read.  The same is true of your work PC as well.  This can be a pretty useful feature for on the go professionals or students.

Another feature is the ability to push contacts from your iPhone to your PC without having to hook anything up.  If you are out and you meet a client, contact, or study partner that you want to shoot an email all you will have to do is get their information into your cell phone and the information will automatically be synced with your Outlook account or Address Book on your Mac.

The last push feature that MobileMe offers is the push calander option.  Like the other two features, this turns your iPhone it the perfect mobile calendaring device.  You don’t have to worry about manually updating your home calendar of manually syncing your different devices together to make sure that appointments you make at your desk get put into your cell phone and vice versa.  MobileMe takes care of it all and does so seamlessly.

You also get a cool photo gallery feature, online file storage, and access to me.com.

In additional to all this, they have a Find My iPhone feature that is the source of interest in this news story. What this feature does is it allows users to put a special message on a lost or stolen iPhone, wipe person data from your iPhone remotely, and get a GPS derived location of your cell phone.

As you might suspect, each of these features is pretty powerful. Being able to display a message on your phone could help in the event that you forgot is somewhere. You could say something like, “Oi! I left my mobile phone at the coffee shop. I am on my way to pick it up right now. Please leave it at the counter for me please.” Or if it is stolen you could say something like, “You shall not steal. – God.” Either way, you get a message across that will keep your cell phone safe and hopefully get it back into your hands quickly.

The information wipe feature is also useful because it helps protect your privacy and the privacy of those on your list. Do you really want a thief to have the information of all your most intimate contacts? Do you want them to know your Grandma’s address? Or know where all your girlfriends live? No! Being able to wipe this data off your phone is a very useful feature.

And finally, MobilMe lets you find the location of your phone. If it didn’t this news story wouldn’t be much of a story.

Is all this worth $99 a year? For some it is going to be. For others it will not be. Thankfully, there are other options for those who want to use GPS tracking on their cell phone for theft recovery.

Free GPS Applications For The iPhone

Many phones on the market have the ability to be tracked with GPS, not just “cool” mobile phones like the iPhone. As a result, there are many free tracking programs available for a wide range of mobile device. Many of these programs only work with subset of all the GPS enabled cell phone on the market, so finding one that works for your particular phone is going to take some work – but free is a really nice word, so the work is worth it.

One free GPS tracking software package that is particularly well received is Instamapper. This program works on a lot of different phones and communicates the tracking information in a lot of different ways. It is completely free to use (but check out some warnings about free GPS cell phone tracking) so you really have no reason not to at least give it a try. It could be the difference between catching a criminal and letting them get away with their crime.

The Cell Phone Tracking Software That Keeps On Taking

Just a few weeks ago the blogosphere was in an uproar about some cell phone tracking software that came pre-installed on the Palm Pre that conveniently sent your location information to Palm HQ.  At the time many saw this as a gross invasion of privacy, especially since Palm did not really make it clear to users that this type of activity was going on.  They hid it in the privacy policy, expecting users to actually read these things instead of just accepting them so they can get on with using their new toy.

But, according to some interesting patent information recently uncovered, the folks at Palm want to use your location information for a lot more than just helping you use Google Maps.  They want to use it to sell you stuff.

Here is the actual language in their patent, taken from the very first line under the claims heading (emphasis mine):

1. A mobile device, comprising: a processor; and a memory coupled to the processor and configured to store user-specific data; wherein the processor is configured to access data indicating a position of the mobile device and provide advertisement data based upon the position of the mobile device and the user-specific data.

To cut through all the patent speak used in this … patent, let’s sum up what they said in the following manner.  Palm wants to use your position and information specific to you in order to display laser targeted ads to you on your mobile phone.  This then raises the question, What user specific information do they want to use?  And how are they going to go about getting this information?

Well, as one might expect, there is more of this information in the patent.  The next 5 entries in the patent read as follows (emphasis mine):

2. The mobile device of claim 1, wherein the user-specific data includes data associated with at least one of a date stored in the memory and data provided by an address book of the mobile device.

3. The mobile device of claim 1, wherein the processor is configured to provide the advertisement data further based on a prospective position [presumably from the date book] of the mobile device.

4. The mobile device of claim 1, wherein the processor is configured to provide the advertisement data further based on a historical record of the mobile device, the historical record including a record of at least one of a historical rate of travel of the mobile device and a historical position of the mobile device.

5. The mobile device of claim 1, wherein the processor is configured to access a rate of travel of the mobile device and provide the advertisement data further based on the rate of travel of the mobile device.

6. The mobile device of claim 1, wherein the processor is configured to provide the advertisement data further based on a likely mode of transportation of a user of the mobile device.

The Palm-Pre: The Heart of The GPS Tracking ControversyNow if we let ourselves think about this, we can see that this is some pretty scary stuff.  Palm just wants to use GPS cell phone tracking to make a buck or two, but they are doing so at the expense of your privacy – and that is just wrong!

There are a couple points that are particularly disturbing, and remind me a lot about the decision made by the New York State Court of Appeals that ruled a warrant was needed to use GPS tracking on a suspect.  What you will find next is an edited excerpt from the courts majority opinion expressing their deep concern about warrantless GPS tracking:

One need only consider what [companies like Palm] may learn, practically effortlessly, from planting a single device [to track your cell phone with their advertisement driven cell phone tracking software] . The whole of a person’s progress through the world, into both public and private spatial spheres, can be charted and recorded over lengthy periods …. Disclosed in the data retrieved from the transmitting unit, nearly instantaneously with the press of a button on the highly portable receiving unit, will be trips the indisputably private nature of which takes little imagination to conjure: trips to the psychiatrist, the plastic surgeon, the abortion clinic, the AIDS treatment center, the strip club, the criminal defense attorney, the by-the-hour motel, the union meeting, the mosque, synagogue or church, the gay bar and on and on. What the technology yields and records …  is a highly detailed profile … of where we go,  … of our associations — political, religious, amicable and amorous, to name only a few — and of the pattern of our professional and avocational pursuits. When multiple GPS devices [or cell phones with webOS running] are utilized, even more precisely resolved inferences about our activities are possible. And … it will be possible to tell  … who we are and are not with, when we are and are not with them, and what we do and do not carry on our persons — to mention just a few of the highly feasible empirical configurations.

Big Brother Company GPS Tracking

Again, this is talking about the police tracking a suspect with GPS, but it also correlates rather nicely with the activity of Palm in this instance.  Do you really want Palm delivering ads on your phone based upon your current destination or one of your previous locations?  Is that really going to make your life better?

For example, let’s say that you have been having some bowel problems lately and have been going to get a colonic regularly as part of the treatment.  Once you have made a recovery are you going to want to have ads displayed on your cell phone for a colonic every time you drive in the general vicinity of the clinic?

Or what if you made an appointment to get a massage at a local massage parlor.  You have never gotten a message before and this place was close to your home when you looked on Google Maps.  You add it to your mobile phone’s address book.  When it comes time for you appointment you head on over to the massage parlor and you enter it and there are tons of scantily clad Vietnamese women walking around the waiting room.  You get this sick feeling that this might not be your sort of massage parlor and you leave.

Well, if you were using a cell phone that didn’t feel a need to invade your privacy and track your position with GPS then this embarrassing experience would be over.  However, it seems possible with the vision expressed in the patent application submitted by Palm that you would be reminded of that fateful day with advertisements as you head in that general direction.  Yuck.

Then there is the issue of what Palm could do when they start correlating different pieces of data between cell phone users.  Let’s say that you are a generally very respectable, moral person who attends an event that draws people from a bunch of different backgrounds.  It could be a church service, or a PTA meeting, or even just a mom event at a park.  Now let’s say that another person who attends these events does not necessarily hold the same value system that you do – they could drink, or smoke, or go to clubs, or do something else that you don’t necessary disapprove of, but certainly don’t want to do yourself.  Now, would you want Palm to suppose that because you meet with this person you also must like doing what they do and therefore display ads for these activities on your cell phone?

While this last scenario isn’t necessarily in the patent information, it sure seems possible – and that possibility is scary.  What business does Palm have knowing this type of information about us and serving advertisements on our cell phones?  I think that this is pretty bad and should be stopped.

Now I need to make it clear that I don’t think GPS tracking is bad in and of itself.  I think that it can be a great way for a  business to improve efficiencies by tracking their fleets.  Fleets that utilize GPS for the purpose of driver routing and maintenance have been able to realize huge cost savings and increase the overall output of their fleets.  This is a great way for businesses to utilize GPS tracking, whether by cell phones or by traditional GPS tracking devices, and to benefit their companies bottom line.

But a business should never invade their users privacy so that they can better target them with advertising – that is just lame.

Another perfectly viable use of GPS tracking in my opinion is the use of this technology by the police to catch criminals. While some may think it odd that I think that the police can track a suspect without the use of a warrant in light of my disgust with Palm for invading their users privacy, I don’t see a contradiction. The police are trying to uphold justice – catch murders, stalkers, rapists, thieves, etc – while Palm is just trying to make an extra buck. Which aim do you think is a little more noble?

Another perfectly legitimate use is to track family members, such as your child, teenager, or spouse. I think that this is entirely in line with the dynamics of a family and the way that it ought to work, as long as GPS is used as a supplement to good parenting techniques and with open communication between spouses. It should never be used as a replacement for these things, and if it is it is being used poorly.

GPS tracking is also great in fitness applications.  GPS running watches are just one of the many different ways that tracking technology has been appropriated for use in fitness.  These devices are powerful training computers that fit easily on your wrist and work, look, and feel like a regular watch that has all the power of GPS infused within it.  When paired with a heart rate monitor there are few things that can compare to the power of a GPS tracking watch.

Finally, GPS tracking is also a great way for people to stay connected with friends and family.  The cheapest alternative out there is certainly the cell phone, and this is why it is so tragic that Palm is turning GPS enabled phones into privacy invading devices.  All that you needed to do to make your phone into a GPS tracking cell phone was download some free GPS software and you were already well on your way to having an easy to use tracking system for your family or friends to use to find you.  Now that Palm is invading your privacy many people might be more wary of pursuing this route, and that is unfortunate in my opinion.

While there is little doubt that GPS tracking is always going to have a commercial aspect to it, it is sad that the desire to make money off of position data has led some companies *cough*Palm*cough* to disregard their user’s privacy and use their information without communicating it to them in a useful way.  I hope that other cell phone companies and GPS tracking providers are watching this debacle and learning the lessons the easy way: don’t steal users GPS location information for advertising – make sure they opt in to it themselves!

Related Information:

Palm’s Patent Application

Yet Another City Considers GPS Bus Tracking

GPS bus tracking can be extremely useful for municipalities and public transportation authorities who want to provide top notch service to their customers while at the same time equipping their fleet with superior vehicle awareness and maintenance capabilities.  Several major cities have already adopted this type of tracking to help provide useful information to their users and to aid fleet authorities to better understand the condition of each and every bus in the fleet.  Some notable cities that use one type of bus tracking or another are Washington D.C, Chicago, and San Francisco – with both Boston and New York City considering some form of tracking for future use on some of their bus lines.

There are several benefits that users of these systems list.  Probably the first thing that users love about a publicly available tracking system for buses is that they provide users with more time.  When a user wants to catch a bus to head off to work, to school, or just out for a night on the town then they would normally just go to the bus stop around the scheduled arrival time of that specific bus.  If a bus is late (or heaven forbid it is early) then you have to wait for the bus to arrive – this could take 5 minutes or it could take half and hour in the case of the early bus.

But if the bus is being tracked with GPS then you can be certain of the buses location at any given point in time.  Some bus tracking systems, like NextBus, even employ a complex arrival time algorithm that will give you an estimated time of arrival for your bus given current traffic conditions.  Equipped with this knowledge, bus riders can make more informed decisions about then they should head out to catch the bus resulting in more time spent at home with the family or more time spent at work earning money for their family.

Another benefit often cited by users of these systems is that they help them feel safer.  I suppose that this has a lot to do with minimizing the amount of time that they spend waiting for the bus.  This is probably very useful for women who might feel at risk if they need to catch the bus in a less than stellar neighborhood or who don’t like being outside in the dark very long by themselves.  The less time they can stand waiting around for a bus the safer they feel when using the bus to get from place to place.

For those cities that experience a rather rough winter, bus tracking systems also help people stay out of the cold.  Again, this all goes back to being able to make better decisions about when to go out and catch the bus that bus GPS tracking software give to users. If they were not able to know where the bus is then they could not decide when a good time to head out to catch it is. If they don’t know when to go out to catch it they begin to play it safe and head out well in advance of the scheduled time so that they can be sure to catch the bus that is going to take them where they want to go.

This type of bus real time tracking seems like the future to me. I can totally see a country 10-15 years from now where every major metropolitan area has its bus lines tracked with GPS. It is efficient, useful, and provides a great service to the public. Also, if cities could spread this type of real time tracking to more than just buses and somehow link up all their transportation services this could really help consumers in their effort to make use of the most efficient transportation available to them. People wouldn’t want to travel by car when they could use the laser like precision of public transportation.

The only way we are going to get away from the energy inefficient modes of transportation is by providing superior alternatives – and it seems like GPS tracking is one of the key components that can make public transportation superior to driving by car.

GPS Car Tracking Device’s Effectiveness Highlighted By Musician And His Lost Violin

What would you do if you lost something worth approximate $500,000 (£300,000) in a taxi cab? Well, a GPS car tracking device helped reunite one musician who lost his concert violin in a taxi cab that brought him home late one night after a long day of practice for his New York city debut. Tired and barely awake from his strenuous day of practice, the young violinists careless left the cab without grabbing his violin. Shocked and in a panic about the loss, he quickly realized his mistake and immediately called the police. The police were then able to contact the taxi cab service that brought the musician home and access the GPS car tracking log of the taxi that that brought the musician home. Thank God for technology and honest taxi drivers!

Here is a quick video of the musician, Hahn-Bin, telling his story on the Early Show. GPS tracking isn’t mentioned in the video, but it helps you get the gist of what went down.

This little episode really helps us understand some of the overall benefits that we can experience when we begin using GPS car tracking in a much larger scale. These benefits include:

Better customer service from service fleets.  GPS fleet tracking is often seen solely as something that will help companies better manage their own fleets and be more efficient in their routing capabilities.  It is no doubt that taxi cabs benefit a great deal from this ability to route the closest taxi to a call on the fly – it ensures that the company saves the most money on gas and can make more service calls, both of which will end up increasing the company’s revenue.

But what is often overlooked by many who want to use  fleet tracking is that it will also help them be better at serving their customers.  Would this taxi company have been able to track down the violin in less than 12 hours if they had not had real time car tracking devices installed in their cabs?  I doubt it.  It would have taken them forever to find the taxi that drove Hahn-Bin to his apartment because they would have had to rely on traditional method of finding the cab rather than on GPS tracking technology.  Hahn-Bin would have had to go down to the local police precinct and looked through a bunch of taxi driver photos and even then he might not have recognized his driver.

With GPS tracking this was all taken care of because all the cab company had to do was plug the pick up coordinates and the drop of coordinates into their GPS tracking software and the would have had the cab ID number of the car in question. Then all they had to do was get a hold of the cabbie and get the violin back into the hands of Hahn-Bin. Now that is great customer service brought about by GPS fleet tracking.

More accurate and effective law enforcement assistance. Another thing that this episode highlights is how much more effective the police can be when they have GPS assistance. Sure, it can also be a little scary when you start giving a government entity information like your GPS coordinates, but it can also be extremely helpful if those people are actually seeking your good and not your harm.

In this case, the police were able to respond in a very timely manner thanks to the GPS tracking device for cars installed in the taxi cab. Just imagine what type of good they could do if they also had the GPS coordinates of every one in a given city? They would be able to find out all the people who were in a 1 mile radius of a murder or other violent crime, helping them track down witnesses and gather information on suspects in the case. While information like this could also be used for evil and it is probably decades before such technology would even be possible, it sure would be a great way to reduce crime or at the very least punish criminals faster.

Increased honesty.  If people know that you can be very certain whether or not they are lying they will generally be much more truthful with you. When you have a GPS tracking device for a car installed in your personal vehicle you are probably going to be much more honest with someone when they ask you where you have been driving. When there is a high level of verifiability there is also a high level of honesty.

This is one reason why covert GPS vehicle tracking can be a mixed bag. Sometime it is necessary to help us understand what someone (maybe a spouse or a rebellious teen) is doings, but other times we would just rather have them stop being self destructive and be honest with us. I foresee that as GPS tracking become more prevalent in GPS cell phones and other portable GPS devices we will also see an increase in the level of honest that we have with other people in our lives. This honest is will make the whole world a better place.

These are just a few of the types of benefits that we can see when GPS car tracking devices begin to become even more prevalent in society.  Sure, there is still a long way to go, but this example of the returned violin is a very promising story if we are to develop into a society where GPS tracking is used for the greater good rather than as a tool in the hands of evil. We still have a long way to go before we can say that GPS tracking is safe, but I think that one day soon we just might be there.

Beware of Unwanted Cell Phone Tracking Software

The Internet is abuzz with the latest news that some GPS-enabled cell phones are automatically sending information like your GPS coordinates to third parties, often without notifying you of this activity.  The first to fall into this PR fiasco was the Palm Pre, which had their continuous and constant GPS tracking discovered by Joey Hess.  While the allegations that this cell phone tracking software actually is constant and continuous has not been officially confirmed or denied by Palm or major news outlets, there is a pretty damning statement released by Palm that seems to indicate that Mr. Hess finding are gospel truth:

Palm takes privacy very seriously, and offers users ways to turn data collecting services on and off. Our privacy policy is like many policies in the industry and includes very detailed language about potential scenarios in which we might use a customer’s information, all toward a goal of offering a great user experience. For instance, when location based services are used, we collect their information to give them relevant local results in Google Maps. We appreciate the trust that users give us with their information, and have no intention to violate that trust.

To me, this is a muddy statement that admits to the use of GPS cell phone tracking software to gather information on a users location.  While Palm is claiming that they would never do anything bad with this information, there is little doubt that a lot of bad can be done.

Palm Pre Cell Phone Tracking SoftwareAnother key issue with the Palm Pre debacle is that they did a piss poor job of informing users about the tracking going on behind the scenes.  Sure, they probably included it in their privacy policy – but let’s be honest here, no one, and I mean no one reads a privacy policy these days.  They are long.  They are boring.  And we generally have a hard time sifting through the legalese to find the real information that we want to know. One blogger pointed out that the responsible thing for Palm to have done in regards to their GPS cell phone tracking would have been to have forced users to opt in to the “feature” rather than turning it on automatically. That seems pretty sensible to me, but for whatever reason the folks at Palm decided otherwise.

The second brouhaha currently fomenting on the Internets is that some of the GPS cell phone tracking software for the iPhone sends your position information to third parties whenever you use certain apps. According to one developer friendly to hacking the iPhone (so they cannot be implicitly trusted) there is one mobile phone analytics package that is particularly “spyware-esque.” The name of the spyware-esque mobile phone analytics is Pinch Media and they provide support for several different iPhone apps.

What is reported as going on is that these applications using Pinch Media track the following information:

  • Your iPhone’s unique ID – which can link you directly to any activity that the phone engages in
  • iPhone model
  • OS version
  • Application version (in this case, camera zoom 1.x)
  • If the application is cracked/pirated
  • If your iPhone is jailbroken
  • Time and date you start the application
  • Time and date you close the application
  • Your current latitude & longitude
  • Your gender (if Facebook enabled)
  • Your birth month (if Facebook enabled)
  • Your birth year (if Facebook enabled)

That is a lot of data for a third party to have about you and your iPhone use.  While the iPhone does manually require that you opt in to all location monitoring applications, they do not necessarily require that developers disclose the exact bits of information being tracked or where they are being sent off to.

There is a text document that is terribly hard to read that offers some more information about different apps that are the worst privacy offenders.  It can be found here: http://textbin.com/y6223

Automatic Cell Phone Tracking Software and Privacy

The privacy implications of these actions by corporations is huge.  All steps down the road to tyranny begin with but a single step, and this is not good news for our children 50-75 years from now.  Once corporations and government agencies begin gathering this type of information on us it is going to be a short road to some form of oppressive regime.  If they aren’t trying to control us with fear, they will be trying to do it with pleasure – and the only solution that I can see is to make hard stands now as consumers.

While we are huge proponents of the massive benefit that can be derived from GPS tracking, we also feel like that this information should not be used for marketing or other purposes.  Placing a financial incentive on a person’s location information is only going to degrade a human brother into an object sought after for their capital and not as a person with thoughts, feelings and emotions.

We are huge fans of free GPS cell phone tracking software, thinking that it can help parents stay connected to their children, provide an awesome safety net for people of all ages, improve our fitness levels through fitness tracking programs, and even help us stay connected to our friends.  In time we hope to see GPS make commuting and all driving more efficient and “earth friendly,” end abduction and other forms of personal assault, and help keep the criminal element at bay.

Unfortunately, privacy concerns like the ones raised against Palm Pre and the iPhone will prevent ground being taken toward these ends.  While the cell phone tracking software could be utilized for great good for a great number of people, I fear that it will probably only be used to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.  That is not the future for GPS tracking that I would want, but it seems to be the future that just might be.

Bus GPS Tracking Software Used For The Common Good

GPS tracking devices have been installed in many commercial and government vehicles for several years now, but it hasn’t been until recently that companies and governments are beginning to make this information know at a much broader level.  They are sharing the information with the people, empowering them to make informed decision about how they want to make us of public and private services.  Most recently, D.C. has seen the debut of 2 bus GPS tracking systems that offer bus riders information about the whereabouts of city buses gathered through GPS.

If you live in the DC area you have probably heard some of the chatter going on about how this GPS tracking stuff is making its way into the hands of regular citizens.  In early July, 2009 the D.C. government launched Where’s My Bus – a website accessible from the Internet and certain mobile phones – that will show a user the distance the next bus is from the stop of their choice on the downtown Circulator system.  This system was developed using open source software in an effort to save money and to give citizens a voice in the programs development.

Then, just a few weeks later, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) launched its own bus awareness webpage that utilizes GPS tracking and an algorithm that calculates arrival times for buses in that system.  This GPS tracking software, called NextBus because of the proprietary information and process that runs the system, provides a much more robust user experience but ended up costing taxpayers a hefty $3 million.

Having two different GPS bus tracking systems unveiled in such a short amount of time really affords those interested in this type of technology a real opportunity to learn something about the different methods of development and what you can expect from governments in the future.  With the Circulator system you have a home-grown, open source software that can be further developed on in later years.  With the NextBus system you have the WMATA buying the software package from another company who owns the rights to the software and the traffic algorithm – development and improvement of the system will happen on their terms.  Which method is better?  Which method provides better results?  Let’s take a look and see.

Circulator Where’s My Bus?

Where is My Bus GPS TrackingWhere’s My Bus? boasts a super simple and straight forward user interface that appears to track two or three dozen different buses.  As you can see from a screen shot of the actual landing page at http://circulator.dc.gov/ it is not going to be winning any design awards anytime soon.  But what this simple interface allows is compatibility on both mobile phones and smartphones as well as being compatible with Internet browsers.

From a development perspective this saves a lot of time and effort.  It can be a real pain to build a rich interface for a computer bases browser and then have to create a simpler version of the exact same information for mobile phones.  The fact that this is what the developers were doing is made clear by a quick look at the html code of http://circulator.dc.gov/ – nothing but simple html written in DTD XHTML Mobile 1.2.

Where is My Bus GPS Tracking Route ScreenWhere is My Bus? is also very simple in how it communicates the next arrival of a bus, as illustrated by the screen shot to the left.  You are given the bus number (which I am sure no user actually knows) along with the route that the bus is on.  Then you are given how far away that bus is from that specific stop.

This tracking system is very simple, but it gets the job done. Sure, there are a few things that the developers could have done to make it much cooler, but they were trying to make both a webpage for desktops and a webpage for mobile phones.  This is hard to do since one uses a 17 inch monitor while the other uses a 3.5 inch display.

My List of Future Improvements:

  • Integrate with GoogleMaps’ travel time engine to get rough estimates as to when buses will arrive at stops.  While this is anything but fool proof, mixing the distance information made available by the GPS tracking technology on the bus with however Google calucates travel time should be better than nothing, right?
  • Get a map on the page already.  This can be done by integrating with GoogleMaps or some other similar mapping application.  Why this hasn’t already been done is beyond me, but probably has something to do with time and money.  This is the obvious next step to making this system that much better.

WMATA NextBus

The WMATA NextBus is simply amazing when compared to Where is My Bus? in terms of features.  Just take a look at the eye candy:

NextBus Bus GPS System Home

But in addition to the eye candy you have a full featured GPS bus tracking system.  For example, if you want to know when the next bus is going to arrive a certain stop all you need to do enter the number in box #1.  Or, if you don’t really know your stop number but you know your route, the direction you are traveling, and the stop you want to catch the bus at you just enter this information and you will get the next three estimated arrival times (as seen in the darker blue box).  Not the distances the bus is from the stop, but a real estimated time until the bus will reach that stop.  This is very useful information.

You will also notice that there is a little phone icon in this dark blue box.  This has a phone number to call in addition to the route and stop number code for your convenience.  How this works is that if you dial the number listed and then enter the route and stop code provided you will with the estimated arrival times.  This is great for people who have a little ways to walk before reaching their bus stop or who will be without computer access for a while but still want to use the bus to get home.

NextBus Bus Tracking GPS System Google MapAnother great feature available on the NextBus GPS tracking bus route system is that it also offer a GoogleMap-like interface for you to see where buses are on a route and when they might be.  It also lets user click on a stop and get the next three estimated arrival times for buses on that route.  This is a very cool feature for users.

I’m not very sure that there are any things that should be added to or improved upon this bus GPS tracking software, but I don’t know how accurate the time predictions are or how usable the system is on a cellular phone.  If this works just as well on a mobile phone as it does on a computer then this system is really neat.

Usability and Which Tracking System Has It

Which one would you rather use?  I know for certain that the NextBus system is more useful than the Where is My Bus? system.  Both are GPS tracking software packages that that give bus riders direct access to this GPS information gathered by these buses, but they do so in very different styles.  The style I like the best is definitely NextBus.  Its maps and time estimates make it much more user friendly and actually caters to how people think about catching the bus.

I mean no one is going to be able to instantly look at a bus being .4 miles away and go, “Okay, the bus is .4 miles away.  A bus traveling on a city street goes about .1 mile every 2 minutes at optimal driving conditions.  But today there is a little bit of traffic that I estimate will make it 20% slower.  I should get to the bus stop no later than 9 minutes from now just to play it safe.”  That is way too much math in public.

While the Where is My Bus? system is a good starting point for development, it is not even in the same league as the NextBus system in terms of usability.

But as a city administrator I would much rather go with the open source version that was cheaper to develop but offers less functionality.  Chris Willey, Washington’s interim CTO, put it this way, “We built it intentionally open so somebody else could make it better.  If you want to find out when is the next bus, we left it open for the community to figure that out. It’s really about creating a community of developers who are creating applications for government.” While this may not give certain people warm fuzzies all over it is sound thinking and wise decision making.

Knowing that a bus is .4 miles away is still useful information – it is just not as useful as know that it will be getting to the stop in about 8 minutes.

Final Analysis<

In the end, I am glad that government entities and private companies are taking up the call to provide useful GPS tracking systems for the common good.  Buses, trains, and trolleys can all benefit from the use of GPS devices.  It is just a shame that the cost to do so is $3 million (the cost of the NextBus GPS bus tracking system).  There needs to be a cheaper, open source solution if governments are going to be able to implement this functionality for all citizens on all lines of public transportation.  That is why the Where is My Bus? tracking system is so interesting – it holds out the hope for a free GPS tracking system for municipalities and states all across the nation and the world.