Geo-Tagging Gets a Wi-Fi Boost

Geo-Tagging Gets a Wi-Fi Boost

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Written By Eric Sandler

By Naomi Graychase

March 5, 2008

This week at CeBIT 2008 (hall 15, booth D34), Skyhook Wireless and its new partner locr will demonstrate how Skyhook’s Wi-Fi Positioning System (WPS) will bring location awareness to photos posted to locr’s photo-sharing site.

According to IMS Research analyst Matia Grossi, geo-tagging (marking photos with precise location information), is “poised to move into the mainstream. Today, camera and cell phone makers are exploring ways to support geo-tagging in their devices.”

Locr is a relatively new photo-sharing site focused on geo-tagging. The locr software (for mobile phones, digital cameras, GPS dataloggers, and PCs) automatically tags photos with GPS—and now WPS—data. This means that uploaded pictures include embedded information that shows their positions (in latitude and longitude) on digital maps and also generates descriptions of the surrounding area. Locr users can upload, archive, and swap their geo-tagged photos for free.

In situations where the location capabilities of GPS can be hampered—indoor conditions or urban environments, for example—Skyhook’s WPS  technology compliments GPS by providing location accuracy, coverage, and quicker time-to-fix. WPS also enables geo-tagging for devices that support Wi-Fi, but that do not have GPS on-board.

“The majority of digital photos are taken inside. That’s the real challenge for GPS,” says Ted Morgan, CEO of Skyhook Wireless. “When you take a picture on the Nokia N95, it can take a full minute [for the GPS feature to embed a location]. Our technology helps in all those areas. We get a great fix indoors and in an urban environment, and we can do it quickly.”

Locr provides everything necessary for users to geo-tag digital photos: free software for PC and mobile, which now includes both GPS and Wi-Fi solutions, free Web space, and community and organization features.

“Geo-tagging, from an organizational standpoint, is really helpful,” says Morgan. “A typical user might have thousands of digital pictures, and the only way to organize them is by date. Finding anything is difficult unless you tag them manually. With geo-tagging, they are automatically organized…

“There’s a movement around user-generated content–what’s neat is that you can really get a sense of the street-level feel of a particular area you’re going to. The Vatican, for instance. You can almost get a tour from these spots. Some people are trying to stitch them together into a seamless video so you can walk through. It’s a really neat way of seeing your pictures and others,” says Morgan. “If you’re planning a trip, you can go to a map page and zoom in on where your hotel is and you can take a look at the photos that everyone else took at the hotel you’re considering. You get an amazing human feel.”

“There’s a project,” says Morgan, “photographing where all the latitude and longitudes come together. People are trying to take a picture at every one of those intersections, so you could pick any latitude and longitude all around the world and see what it looks like.”

It took Skyhook “a couple of years” to map all of the Wi-Fi access points in its database. “We’ve mapped 70% of the US and Canadian populations, now we’re doing Europe and Asia,” says Morgan.

To map the APs, Skyhook sends out teams of “data collection specialists” who drive around, block by block, scanning for signals and mapping the locations. “They drive every single street,” says Morgan. “Think about LA and how large that area is; we’ve driven every single street. It takes hundreds of people. We have 300 people now doing it across the world.”

What’s their job description? 

“’Drive and don’t hit anything’,” says Morgan.

Because the data collection specialists are not logging on to the networks, security measures don’t affect their results. “We don’t use the SSID, we use the MAC address,” says Morgan. “It is always broadcasted. We’re not connecting to the AP, so it can be totally locked down, it all looks the same to us.”

Skyhook’s technology has also been licensed by Apple to provide its iPhone and iPod touch users with pinpointed locations using Google Maps (and WPS).  For more on that, read “Wi-Fi Map of the World.”

Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at

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