Interview With Heath Johns, Resident Geek for Hitch50.com
Chances are, you may have heard of Scotty and Fiddy. They’re two guys who have taken on the task of hitchhiking to every US state capital in 50 days or less, chronicling the journey via their website Hitch50.com.
Their reasons for the project are simple: Scotty and Fiddy just finished business degrees at Royal Roads University Commerce program, and the reality of collared-shirts, paperwork, and long hours at the office wasn’t as appealing as thumbing rides across the country.
So they gathered T-shirts emblazoned with their names, cut out their first cardboard sign, and set off from the glittering heart of American commerce itself: Times Square in New York City.
Now about half-way through their trip, Scotty and Fiddy have managed surprisingly well, with their website quickly filling with blog posts, film clips, and comments from their growing legion of fans. They owe their success partially to the nifty GPS tracking system that displays their location on a cross-referenced Google Map at the top of the site, allowing visitors to see exactly where they are…right now.
Impressed with the feature, I tracked down their technical guy Heath Johns to learn how they put it together, the implications for personal privacy, and the possibilities for future use of such technology.
BNT: So how exactly does the GPS system work?
Heath: “All recent American cell phones have a GPS chip in them, so that 911 workers can find the caller if there’s an emergency. A fellow over at Mologogo.com by the name of Jason Uechi has written some software for those phones so that anyone can access that GPS chip. So right now Scotty and Fiddy have a phone (a Boost i415) that’s been programmed to call us every 15 seconds or so to tell us its GPS coordinates.”
“Google has been kind (or smart) enough to let people embed their map in their own websites. Once you have the map on your website, and you’ve got coordinates coming in from the phone, you just have to put them together. It’s duct-tape programming.”
BNT:This is one of the first times I’ve seen Google Maps used to update someone in real-time from their cell phone. Had you seen the technique before you applied it to Hitch50?
Heath: Our inspiration was a guy named Tim Hibbard. He’s been working in the field for a while, and threw [a similar GPS feature] together. The trouble is that he never really went anywhere… Which is where we came in.
BNT: You’re right, it’s more interesting when the subjects are constantly on the move, like Scotty and Fiddy.
Heath: Tim was really helpful in the beginning when we were working out all the technical kinks. We ended up not being able to use the same technology as him, so he was more of a reassurance that it “could” be done, which was comforting. Especially as the deadlines started showing up and the guys flew out and we still hadn’t quite gotten the phone to work. When Scotty and Fiddy were standing in Times Square, Jason [other tech guy] was there doing last minute tech support.
BNT: You mentioned that the GPS chips are now standard in all cell phones. Does this mean anyone can have access to this data, or only if the person allows them access?
Heath: In this specific case, you have to go out of your way to install a program on your phone (a similar process to putting in a new ringtone), and you have to make sure that program is up and running. In other words, it’s voluntary; not something that can be done on the sly by someone else. Any time the guys want, they can turn it off.
BNT: But since the GPS chips are being installed for 911 emergencies, can the authorities track someone without this special software activated?
Heath: Ah, that’s the caveat. Anyone with the proper authority (emergency workers for instance) don’t need the special software. They can access the GPS chip directly. Which means that the US government can know where you are right out of the box, without you being able to turn it off. In other words, Uncle Sam knows where you are, but your girlfriend doesn’t, unless you want her to.
BNT: Do you feel that’s an invasion of privacy or a necessary evil that is unlikely to be abused by those in power?
Heath: That’s a big question. I think it’s pretty realistic to say that it’s been misused already. (I’m sure some 911 dispatcher really wanted to know what her boyfriend was up to one night, for example). My take on the privacy issue falls in the “mutual transparency” camp. I think it’s too late to worry about how much can be seen; the important thing is to make sure that the actions of those in power are as equally transparent as those of the citizenry.
BNT: Moving away from Orwellian scenarios, what are some other uses for the technology that you think could “revolutionize” how we think about location?
Heath: One idea that I find interesting is the combination of phones like these and RFID tags. RFID’s are those little spiral stickers that you find on some products these days. They just sit there and broadcast what they are. For instance, one on a book will announce “I’m ISBN 0596001053” to anyone who asks. If you have a phone which knows where itself is, and can figure out where these tags are in relation, you suddenly have the location of everyday things.
“Imagine just walking through your house with a cell phone and having it construct a personal Google map of your life. If you put an RFID on your keys, you locate where your keys are instead of looking under the couch for the third time. It’s basically bringing the tools of the online world into the offline world.”
BNT: Aside from Scotty and Fiddy using the technology to pinpoint their location on the road, what are some other ideas for travelers around the world?
Heath: One idea would be to have a location escrow – basically an electronic lockbox that contains your GPS coordinates. You could have it set up so in an emergency your family could access your travel history, in case you disappear. It could increase the safety of travel without losing the feeling of freedom.”
BNT: Agreed. I think the total loss of freedom may hurt one of the core reasons people travel, which is to be “lost” if only for a while. On the other hand, websites like Plazes.com are already cropping up, allowing members to geo-tag locations around the world.
Heath: Yeah, like leaving a message at a specific GPS coordinate, so that anyone walking past there would get it. A note attached to a place. It would completely ruin the feeling that you’re maybe the first person to discover this cool little place though.
BNT: For sure, there’s something about reading “1856 people have had this exact experience already and here’s their comments about it” that could ruin the experience.
Either way, it will be interesting to see where this all goes.
I thanked Heath for his time and wished him well. Meanwhile, Scotty and Fiddy seem to be doing well, with interviews on MSNBC, CNN, and over 100,000 visitors to their site.
Heath confessed they figured the project would either “get huge” or be completely ignored. He figures 100 thousand visitors is a little bit down the middle, and is attempting to figure out what would push it over the edge.
I suggested Scotty and Fiddy, as they approach the end of their trip, set up a meeting with Senator Obama, and get him out on a fancy bike ride. As these guys have already proved, just about anything is possible.