Super Simple Public Location Broadcasting

I've been thinking about Yahoo's new fire eagle location-broking service over the last few days. I think it is a really exciting service - potentially a game changer - and has the potential to move publishing and using location data from a niche product to something really mainstream. Really good stuff.

But as I posted here, I also think fire eagle (at least as it's currently formulated) is probably only usable by a relatively small section of the web - roughly the relatively sophisticated "web 2.0" sites who are comfortable with web services and api keys and protocols like OAuth.

For the rest of the web - the long web 1.0 tail - the technical bar is simply too high for fire eagle as it stands to be useful and usable.

In addition, fire eagle as it currently stands is unicast, acting as a mediator between you some particular app acting as a producer or a consumer of your location data. But, at least on the consumer side, I want some kind of broadcast service, not just a per-app unicast one. I want to be able to say "here's my current location for consumption by anyone", and allow that to be effectively broadcast to anyone I'm interacting with.

Clearly my granularity/privacy settings might be different for my public location, and I might want to be able to blacklist certain sites or parties if they prove to be abusers of my data, but for lots of uses a broadcast public location is exactly what I want.

How might this work in the web context? Say I'm interacting with an e-commerce site, and if they some broad idea of my location (say, postcode, state, country) they could default shipping addresses for me, and show me shipping costs earlier in the transaction (subject to change, of course, if I want to ship somewhere else). How can I communicate my public location data to this site?

So here's a crazy super-simple proposal: use Microformat HTTP Request Headers.

HTTP Request Headers are the only way the browser can pass information to a website (unless you consider cookies a separate mechanism, and they aren't really useful here because they're domain specific). The HTTP spec even carries over the "From" header from email, to allow browsers to communicate who the user is to the website, so there's some kind of precedent for using HTTP headers for user info.

Microformats are useful here because they're really simple, and they provide useful standardised vocabularies around addresses (adr) and geocoding (geo).

So how about (for example) we define a couple of custom HTTP request headers for public location data, and use some kind of microformat-inspired serialisation (like e.g. key-value pairs) for the location data? For instance:

X-Adr-Current: locality=Sydney; region=NSW; postal-code=2000; country-name=Australia
X-Geo-Current: latitude=33.717718; longitude=151.117158

For websites, the usage is then about as trivial as possible: check for the existence of the HTTP header, do some very simple parsing, and use the data to personalise the user experience in whatever ways are appropriate for the site.

On the browser side we'd need some kind of simple fire eagle client that would pull location updates from fire eagle and then publish them via these HTTP headers. A firefox plugin would probably be a good proof of concept.

I think this is simple, interesting and useful, though it obviously requires websites to make use of it before it's of much value in the real world.

So is this crazy, or interesting?

The Long Tail of Location

Brady Forrest asked in a recent post what kinds of applications people would most like to see working with Yahoo's new location-broking service Fire Eagle (currently in private beta).

It's clear that most of the shiny new web 2.0 sites and apps might be able to benefit from such personal location info:

  • photo sites that can do automagic geotagging

  • calendar apps that adapt to our current timezone

  • search engines that can take proximity into account when weighting results

  • social networks that can show us people in town when we're somewhere new

  • maps and mashups that start where you are, rather than with some static default


And such sites and apps will no doubt be early adopters of fire eagle and whatever other location brokers might bubble up in the next little while.

Two things struck me with this list though. First, that's a lot of sites and apps right there, and unless the friction of authorising new apps to have access to my location data is very low, the pain of micromanaging access is going to get old fast. Is there some kind of 'public' client level access in fire eagle that isn't going to require individual app approval?

Second, I can't help thinking that this still leaves most of the web out in the cold. Think about all the non-ajax sites that you interact with doing relatively simple stuff that could still benefit from access to your public location data:

  • the shipping address forms you fill out at every e-commerce site you buy from

  • store locators and hours pages that ask for a postcode to help you (every time!)

  • timetables that could start with nearby stations or routes or lines if they knew where you were

  • intelligent defaults or entry points for sites doing everything from movie listings to real estate to classifieds

This is the long tail of location: the 80% of the web that won't be using ajax or comet or OAuth or web service APIs anytime soon. I'd really like my location data to be useful on this end of the web as well, and it's just not going to happen if it requires sites to register api keys and use OAuth and make web service api calls. The bar is just too high for lots of casual web developers, and an awful lot of the web is still custom php or asp scripts written by relative newbies (or maybe that's just here in Australia!). If it's not almost trivially easy, it won't be used.

So I'm interested in how we do location at this end of the web. What do we need on top of fire eagle or similar services to make our location data ubiquitous and immediately useful to relatively non-sophisticated websites? How do we deal with the long tail?