Location Obsessives Beware: You May Never Leave Your Screens

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For years I’ve been fascinated with digitized maps and the spell they can cast. Through their magic we can see where we’re going, where we’ve been, where we could have gone. We can become easily found when we’re lost, but, alas, we’re no longer never quite as undiscoverable when we’re seeking silence.

And since the map interface has jumped fromwith atoms to bits, lighting up pixels of core applications on nearly every device stamped out by innovators of sleek glass and steel to copycats of affordable utility (almost all phones now carry mapping apps), almost everyone can play along.

The first floppy disk-based product I ever bought was map display software, probably from Rand McNally. I, like millions, discovered then that the inner cartographer found its bliss roaming the virtual red- and blue-lined streets of our neighborhoods: “It’s 9.4 miles from here to Philadelphia. But that’s by car. As the crow flies it’s 7.2… maybe 7.4 if you’re going downtown.” Nobody much cared for my observations, though — at least until they, too, had their face up to the monitor watching the moveable, zoomable, digital, graphical maps jitter in response to that big wired mouse

Hours could pass if you let your imagination wander, flying over France, clicking a location for some rudimentary pop-up information. “The average temperature is 66!” But it wasn’t long before digital mapping and the data associated with it became fused to our daily routines, online calendars, our favorite restaurant sites, and the yellow and white pages.

Given all of our interest in geography, it’s no surprise “tracking” has grown immensely popular. Our car GPSs do it; scores of apps do it; lots of strap-on exercise devices offer it; the iPhone “inadvertently” did it natively for a while.  And it’s popular for good reason — personal data is seductive. We love to know about ourselves and our friends. Not just where we are now, or where our friend was yesterday at 8:15 pm, but when did we cross paths unknowingly?

Footprints, please step this way. For all those interested in both seeing the trails they leave behind while instantly accessing those of their friends, children, employees, this app is for you.

Check-in? No — no checking in required. Need to hold in the air for a signal? Intermittent GPS is tackled. Delays and lags? Not really — my experience with visualized tracking data is near realtime.

Footprints is not the first application to look at these snail trails – or I should say, to allow users to look at and share them. But it just might be the most elegant. In fact, for carto-geeks, it approaches art.

While footprints runs silently in the background (or on the screentop) it notes and remembers “Waypoints” that allow you to view a virtual geo-timeline of yourself and others. There’s even a nifty Tracker Accuracy vs. Battery Life option, letting users easily choose which is more important at the moment. To share your presence with others is quite simple as well by adding Permissions (friends from your address book) or syncing with your Facebook account.

One can easily see how businesses would very much like to know where customers and potentials customers are or will be. Maybe you even share your Waypoints with Starbucks and in return the coffee behemoth offers something tasty in return.

The software’s maker, Sollico, promises complete privacy, calling it a “key feature” of Footprints: “Your geo-location data is only shared with the people you explicitly grant permission to see your location. Your registration information is never used to contact you, never sold to others, and never used for advertising.”

Control battery life vs. accuracy.

That last part is interesting, as one can easily see how businesses would very much like to know where customers and potentials customers are or will be. Maybe you share your Waypoints with Starbucks and in return the coffee behemoth offers something tasty. Or possibly the data in aggregate could predict where people who go to X will likely make Y their next stop before hitting the drivethrough at Z.

Sollico’s not talking. Our only contact was through a staffer who asked to be nameless (symbolizing commitment to privacy), and who wanted the product to be the story and not the developers. Fair enough. But a little ironic.

Regardless, for the nerdnick geo-romantics like myself (ever on the lookout for beautiful new ways to see their digital world, follow people they know and ruminate on the data) Footprints is a step change in the oeuvre.

Those blue and red lines of yesterday, trapped in a hulking monitor and disconnected from life were set free long ago thanks to MapQuest and Google Earth. Footprints take their utility, subtracts for simplicity and turns your device into the new … perfect companion.