'Social mapping' and GPS tech lets friends keep tabs on each other
September 5, 2008 10:53 PM
From MySpace to Facebook, online social networks are still expanding, but social mapping seems to be the new gadget everyone is talking about.
The Web application allows users the ability to see the locations of their friends who also use the application and, for some, raises questions on whether the technology is a cool social feature or a creepy stalking device.
The application, which can be downloaded to cell phones, hand held devices and computers, allows users to connect with friends and keep track of their whereabouts, find places and get directions all through Global Positioning Systems.
When adding to the social network, the customer downloads the application to their cell phone, hand held device or computer. Eventually, the user is asked if they’d really like to add the tracking application. The message pops up: “The application Loopt requests access to your GPS location information. Do you wish to grant access?”
After that, the user is able to see his or her location indicated by a circle on a map that appears on the device’s screen. Friends who have been added to the customer’s network will also appear on a map. One of the options of this web application is that users can invite friends-- who appear to close to them on the map-- to join them at a restaurant, movie or any location the user may like.
Dan Gilmartin, vice president of marketing for Buddy Beacon, one of the main companies that sells social mapping, said that Buddy Beacon allows users to download more than 70 Web applications to their devices.
The concept of social mapping as a form of networking started with Dodgeball, a company that allows its users to send text messages to a selected group of friends, and offers the opportunity for users to update their locations.
The new technology is met with mixed reactions.
“I think it is creepy that people can stalk you,” said Darrell Alfonso, who is a music major at SF State and uses Loopt. “I only have two friends. I always turn it (Loopt) off because I don’t want people to find me.”
The Web application is free for customers and according to Gilmartin, Buddy Beacon’s niche market is young adults between the ages of 17 and late 30s.
While social mapping does cause some skepticism and concern about having users whereabouts known 24 hours a day, users do have the option to change status and make themselves unavailable, which would then hide their location from friends.
The product has been in the market for about six years, and has not been regulated in a way that privacy laws could specifically protect users from possibly suffering form invasion of privacy. Also, the problems that can arise from social mapping are still unclear.
“Technology always exceeds legislation,” said Marc Sosnick, office assistant for the department of computer science at SF State.
In the meantime, Gilmartin said that privacy is definitely an issue that concerns Buddy Beacon.
“We have architected our product in a way that you are in control of your location,” Gilmartin said.
“Everytime you create new ways of collecting data, data is collected. It will happen (data collection), technology is not the problem,” said Dragutin Petkovic, chair of the computer science department at SF State. “People should request political protection.”
While some may question whether or not social mapping keeps users from privacy, others look at the social opportunity of learning about new places, connecting with friends who can be just around the corner.
“I think it is kind of weird (social mapping), because you can call the person. But if you can contact them it would be useful,” said Allysha Davis, an 18-year-old SF State student.
Some of the major Web sites that offer social mapping are Loopt, Brightkite, Whrrl and Buddy Beacon. All started in the past few years and have alleged to be only growing the number of users.
“There are two factors (that will increase the growth of social mapping) one is a consumer demand, service providers providing that service and there is not a phone these days that doesn’t have a GPS,” Gilmartin said. “I think that over time we will have a 100 percent (market opportunity).”
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