Where are we, where are we now?


When Jeff Jonas came in a few weeks ago to give a talk he stressed the

importance of what – where – who – when questions for understanding

what is going on within corporations. Science too is generally

concerned with figuring things out, and earlier this month Nature ran an

editoral pointing out that “Among the basic elements of scientific

record-keeping, too often the ‘where?’ gets neglected. Now advances in

satellite-positioning technology, online databases and geographical

information systems offer opportunities to make good that neglect”, so

it was coincidentally very timely that in the same week we had Tom Coates and

Seth Fitzsimmons come in to talk to us about some of the work that they

have been doing at Brickhouse, the Yahoo! R&D incubator located in San

Francisco. They specifically came in to talk about Fire Eagle, a location

brokerage service, but before getting into the specifics of Fire Eagle

Tom talked a little about Brickhouse and some of the stuff that is

coming out of there.

Innovation is important for every company if for no other reason than

the “Red

Queen” hypothesis, in which no evolution leads to extinction by

default. Finding a way to innovate and to feed new ideas into an

exiting company is a classic optimization problem, you want to cast

about your local space with a random sampling of ideas that will get

you out of your local minimum, but not spend all of your efforts

pursuing new ideas that won’t settle down to anything. Many companies

have tried different methods, with Google’s 20% rule being a notable

case in point.

One of the approaches that Yahoo! have taken is to set up a

semi-autonomous group with the feel and spirit of a start up. This is

Brickhouse and is located away from the main company in the heart of

San Francisco. Tom characterized it as an attempt to bring the great

ideas together with great people who could make these ideas come to

life. He pointed out that sometimes the people who come up with great

ideas are not in the best position to execute them and vice-versa.

Indeed some of the products that they have shipped, and are in the

process of shipping, are pretty impressive. This approach to innovation has led to

Yahoo Live, Pipes, Bravo Nation and Fire Eagle.

You can get a list of some other projects here.

Fire Eagle is a location brokerage service. It helps you share your

location, and gives you a high degree of control over this information.

It is easy to build on top of, and to use to make location based

services. The way the system works is that you tell Fire Eagle where

you are. You tell Fire Eagle who, or what, you want to share that

information with, and then Fire Eagle tells all of these people or

services where you are. By making an open framework for the service

it is easy for other people to create tools that plug into Fire Eagle

for both input and output. Instead of building a N^2

infrastructure where every interconnection in the communication

network has to worry about passing, parsing and verifying

location-based data, the Fire Eagle service takes care of this, and

reduces the complexity of allowing rich location aware services to


So why would you want to have your location known to other parties?

The numbers of applications are only limited by the imagination of

developers. There are many cool social, scientific and commercial

things (I’m averse to using the term application in this context, as

what we are talking about are things that lie on top of a piece of

infrastructure, so they could be higher level pieces of

infrastructure, physical objects, tools, toys, or a combination of of all

of these) that could be created. Being able to see where at a

conference or in a city all of your friends are, finding the closest

available taxi or bus, sending your location back to a recorder in

real time while you are in the field collecting data, listening to

music that friends of yours listened to, on that spot, at some point

in the past, being alerted to papers or stories that are being

published about the region that you are visiting (Connotea supports geo


Tom said that three things informed their design decisions, creation

of a service that can manifest anywhere that the network touches, a

service that will play well with other services, and a service that

decouples the creation and use of data.

The problem that Fire Eagle solves is that getting data is pretty

hard, and the people who are good at getting the data often only have

an interest in a small number of use cases for the data. Other people

who have lot’s of ideas of what to do with data like this can’t

because they can’t get the data.

This is where having a location broker comes in.

Although the service has only been in beta for a few weeks, there have already been a lot of applications and

tools integrated with it. Manually updating your location is going to

be a burden, so the obvious sensor that can connect your location to

Fire Eagle is your mobile phone, and already some mobile phone

applications have built in integration with Fire Eagle. These include


and Navizon. Other services that

auto-update your location to Fire Eagle include Dopplr , Plazes and Loki. Seth pointed out that this does

raise the question of whether one is then recording the position of a

person or of a device, but so many of the electronic trails that we leave (e.g. emails, blog posts, twitter updates) are only reflections of our existence, we are pretty used to thinking of them as sufficient representations of persons to the extent that fictionalized characters often now have blogs of their own in effect to deepen the illusion of their existence. One could easily expect to see a Fire Eagle update for some fictionalised persona at some point in the future.

Some services that consume your location include Brightkite, Lightpoe and a moveable

type plugin.

Many of these other services are connecting to Fire Eagle using OAuth and Wikinear is an example of an

OAuth + Fire Eagle + Google Maps + Wikipedia mashup that the prolific

Simion Wilson put together in about half a day.

The Fire Eagle guy’s are currently working on “Friends on Fire”, a

facebook app that will show you where you facebook friends are

(presumably so you can avoid the zombie horde).

That kind of wrapped up the talk and then there was a quick Q&A. (my

notes are a bit brief here, so I am only paraphrasing the questions

and answers)

Q: Timo: All the examples concentrate on the location of people, what

about the location of objects? in the scientific world we think of

buoys in the ocean transmitting geo data.

A: Tom: We are thinking about that, but the next kind of things we

track will probably be pets.

Q: Ian: Are there any concerns about privacy of data?

(The bottom line to the answer is that the Fire Eagle guy’s believe

that the data belongs to the user, and that every step and decision

made in development is focused on keeping the user in control of their

data and privacy, as an example Fire Eagle will stop following you if

you don’t periodically grant your permission to it to do so)

A: Tom: There is a code of conduct for the kinds of applications that

interface with Fire Eagle, like having to announce that they are

tracking people, and that they are sharing their data. If we see an

external app that is not playing by these rules we can turn it off.

Q: Matt Brown: are there are any good entries point sites for new

comers, and specifically London based?

A: Tom: Fire Eagle is only 7 weeks old, wiki near was built in a half

day, there is an app gallery on the site,

Q: Timo: what is the advantage to Yahoo! to develop this yourselves,

why should yahoo bear the costs of setting something like this up?

A:Seth: we have a really extensive database of palcenames, which makes

something like this possible.

A: Tom: I’m a strong believer that a rising tide lifts all ships.

A: Seth: if location based services become mainstream we also win.

A: Tom: We try to work out what the future that is going to happen anyway is going to be like, and make it happen faster.

Q: Peter: You could liken this to paypal, is there a risk that you are

building a monopoly?

A:Seth: anyone can implement our api so there is no chance of this being a monopoly, but we think our name db provides better value

A:Tom: A good example are auction sites, bigger are better, but it doesn’t make any sense to charge for Fire Eagle, there are open data sources in the world, someone could go and build another version of this, however people already trust yahoo with a lot of information. Yahoo is the biggest provider of email is the world

Q: Alf: what happens with people hammering the services, are you going

to be pushing updates, or will people always have to poll for data?

A: Seth: we are thinking of building an xmpp interface.

And that was it for the talk. There is no question but that location is hugely important, and number of API’s for

map and location services is continuing to grow. Just before posting this write up Yahoo! launched a preview of the Yahoo! Internet Location Platform, and there is a good write up about that on O’Reilly Radar.


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