Jeremy Osborn: Designer, Educator, Writer

Jul 22

Firefox 3.5 Geolocation Part 1

The latest version of Firefox (3.5) has a feature called geolocation. Simply put, through a series of calculations based on your wireless signal and other factors, your geographic location can be pinpointed and this information used to send you relevant data based on your whereabouts. (For a much more technical explanation read the Geolocation API spec. ) Simple example: you’re traveling and want pizza. You fire up a browser in your hotel room and go to a site (Google maps, Tripadvisor . .) which uses your current location to automatically show you all the pizza places within 5 miles of your location.

When I first explain this concept to people, the first response is usually something like: that’s scary. Understandably so, as this brings up new privacy concerns for web browsing. The ramifications of this technology are better left for another post, but I think Firefox does a good job of managing concerns. Whenever you visit a site that wants to make use of the feature, you are given a prompt that you can either accept or reject. This concept doesn’t seem so odd if you use the GPS features on an iPhone or other mobile devices, in this case, a mobile feature has paved the way for the web.

Actually, this technology has been usable as a plugin since Firefox 3.1, but is now built into the 3.5 version of the browser. One of the best places to see this in action is Flickr. The photo community site has long been on the leading edge of geotagging photos, there are roughly 80 million geotagged images on Flickr today. In addition to Flickr’s own geotagging tools, photographers have been able to add metadata to images for latitude and longitude since Photoshop 7 and you could cheaply and automatically add gps data to your images in 2006 (and perhaps earlier). Now, of course with millions of iPhones geotagging images with each shot, there is a mountain of gps data floating around.

See geotagging in action on Flickr

  1. Go to
  2. Click on the FInd My Location button (As of this writing if you’re not in a geolocation aware browser, you won’t see this.)
  3. find_my_location_flickr

  4. You will be prompted by Firefox to either Share Your Location or Don’t Share. If you want to see it in action, click “Share . .”
  5. The Flickr map will now update to your location. Assuming there are geotagged images in your immediate area, you will see pink circles representing images on a local map. Additionally, a row of thumbnails representing these images appears at the bottom.

Click map to enlarge view.

The ability to view the connections between the geography of a location and images associated with this location is interesting to me. Here’s an example: last month some friends and I reserved a spot at a campsite none of us had ever been to. By using the Flickr map and browsing to the location it’s pretty obvious that there’s something of interest by the inlet near the eastern side of the lake. Might be a place to check out, right? What is interesting about this is that all things being equal, the “filter” of interesting images is generated by the collection of photographers and (in theory) was created organically. So you, the viewer, are making the connections, not a mapmaker or a moderator.

To learn how to add the geolocation code to your web pages and connect it with a web service, check this excellent tutorial from Studiowhiz.

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Jeremy Osborn's Blog

This is the weblog of Jeremy Osborn, a designer, educator and writer living in the Boston area. I write here about design, technology and other matters. Subscribe to the RSS feed and follow me on Twitter.

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