December 7


  • Editor's Introduction
  • Trackstick GPS Data Logger: Geospatial Surveillance Made Easy
  • GIS Shops in the Portland Area: GeoNorth Part 2
  • Spatial Thinking: Literacy for the 21st Century, by Phil Cruver

Editor's Introduction

This week I report on a company that makes GPS-based tracking devices, for overt or covert use; I continue my systematic reporting on GIS shops in the Portland area, with the second part of a profile of GeoNorth, the consulting company behind several public GIS implementations in that area; and I feature a guest editorial on spatial thinking. Plus, my usual round-up of news from press releases.

— Matteo

Trackstick GPS Data Logger: Geospatial Surveillance Made Easy

Threats to our privacy continue to multiply. They include technologies routinely justified as ways to improve public safety, increase efficiency, and deliver new services, such as:
  • surveillance cameras in stores, at airports, on traffic lights, in stadiums, etc., often coupled with face-recognition software
  • digital photos collected by DMVs
  • high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery
  • information on our purchases, collected at the point-of-sale—whether it be a physical cash register or a virtual, on-line one
  • other kinds of data mining—from lone dumpster divers to large server arrays
  • automated toll collection services
  • warrant-less interception of phone calls and e-mail
  • software that secretly records key strokes
  • data collection by software companies, on-line service providers, and search engines.

Our "reasonable expectation of privacy" is not just eroding; it is being swept away by a landslide.

For years I fought a quixotic battle against the inclusion of GPS on the above list and the use of such phrases as "GPS tracking device" in the popular media. Tracking, I pointed out, is only one of many applications of GPS. Real-time tracking—of a person, vehicle, or other asset / target—requires coupling a GPS receiver, which computes its position and usually displays it to the user, with a radio transmitter, to convey the position data to a monitoring center. Until recently, covert use of GPS for tracking was so rare, costly, and technically challenging that most people did not need to worry about it.

Now, however, small, affordable, GPS data loggers with long battery life are changing the equation. Pretty soon, it will no longer be paranoid to check in your backpack or briefcase or under your car's dash to make sure that someone—a business competitor, a jealous spouse, a cop, or a robber—hasn't hidden there a GPS data logger, with or without the ability to transmit that data in real time. Heck, one can buy a small, GPS-enabled cell phone, subscribe to one of several available tracking services, hide the phone in a vehicle's glove compartment, and track that vehicle for many hours before the battery dies (or the driver discovers the device and throws it in a ditch).

Telespial Systems' Trackstick can do the job more cheaply, better, and more reliably than cell phones, according to the company's founder, principal shareholder, and chief engineer, Richard Haberkern. The 2 1/2" x 2" x 3/4" device—which features a Furuno GPS chipset, more than 1MB of memory, and a USB interface—records its own location, time, date, speed, heading, and altitude at intervals preset by the user, ranging from five seconds to one hour. While it cannot be used for real-time tracking, it does not rely on cell towers, which might be down during an emergency, Haberkern says. In low-power mode, the device has a battery life of four days, he says. The Trackstick Pro version will run indefinitely on any 5-24 volt DC power source and has 4MB of memory. By contrast, Haberkern points out, the rechargeable battery on DeLorme's Blue Logger—another GPS data logger of similar size, to which I had asked him to compare the Trackstick—lasts only 8 hours. Also, while the Blue Logger "uses Delorme's proprietary (and limited coverage) maps," he says, his product "integrates directly with Google Earth," by outputting files in KML, Google Earth's open source language. Users can also choose to output files in .rtf, .csv, or html formats.

Harberkern was designing his company's first product and trying to determine what mapping systems to use, he recalls, when Google released Google Earth in June of 2005. "As soon as that happened, we knew that we were going to focus completely on Google Earth, using a full integration with our product into that. It was just good timing on our part," he says. "They contacted us about three months ago and started talking to us about this whole, larger scale disaster relief effort and how Google feels that they have a responsibility to change the way things are done and how the Trackstick fit into that vision of what they were looking to do. They are very aware of what is going on and they are very open to working with us. [Google's co-founders] Larry Page and Sergey Brin both have Tracksticks and are evaluating them."

Haberkern emphasizes the utility of the Trackstick during large-scale emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina: if widely deployed, he argues, it would allow public agencies and private companies to map the location of crews, vehicles, supplies, etc., by frequently downloading data from the devices. This vision requires computers, to which to download the data, and an Internet connection, to upload it to a command or dispatch center. However, in a disaster, neither may be available. This is where Google comes in, says Haberkern—who emphasizes his start-up's "relationship" with the giant company.

"What Google is looking to do," Haberkern told me, "is provide kiosks in key areas. They would set them up, provide the database, and use their Google Enterprise servers, which allow you to search physical machines. … So, imagine if you had 20,000 vehicles out there and every one of them was in a database: you could tie specific information into a Google search appliance and find things like just a plate number or all the trucks that contain a particular product. That [location] data needs to be accurate. So their thinking is, You put a Trackstick on the side of each vehicle. You then pop it off the vehicle at the end of the day and download that data. You are getting a semi-real time overview of what's going on in the field. And that's a thousand times better than what they had access to, based on the last disasters. So, that's what we are working with, with them, on a large scale." The Trackstick Pro website prominently displays Google's logo and includes the following statement: "Telespial Systems is proud to join Google Earth and Google, Inc in providing government agencies from around the world the tools needed to help manage and deploy asset and geographical data during times of emergency."

However, when I asked Google to comment on its relationship with Telespial Systems, Megan Quinn, a spokesperson, wrote "We do not have any sort of formal relationship with Telespial Systems and do not have any plans for data download kiosks." When I pressed her further about the relationship between the two companies, she added "We talk with the folks at Telespial Systems from time to time and know they use Google Earth as their display platform, but at this time there is not [a] formal relationship." When I asked Haberkern to respond to Quinn's reply, he wrote, inter al., that "The kiosk scenario is only one of the many concepts we are evaluating," and that "[n]either company would ever publicly discuss what technologies are being developed internally."

Tracksticks can also be used to monitor the time it takes rescue vehicles to respond to 9-1-1 calls, Haberkern points out. "You can then improve your productivity by improving the routes, you can question your emergency response team, there are a million things you can do with that data."

"Originally," says Haberkern, "it was a device for people who were looking to track their teenagers or police departments who were looking to track somebody with a warrant." Then the federal government began buying the devices on the Internet. "The U.S. Postal Service bought a bunch of them, put them in packages, and began shipping them around the country, just to see what the efficiency of their long-haul shipping routes was." Other agencies "are sowing them into the collars of search and rescue dogs, to see which areas they've covered."

The Trackstick website suggests the use of the device to find out where kids have been, verify employee driving routes, review family members' driving habits, monitor large shipments, and "[k]now where anything or anyone has been." The last item has a footnote: "It is illegal to track someone without their permission." This disclaimer appears perfunctory. Trackstick purchasers likely include abusive domestic partners and authoritarian governments. The Trackstick Pro's website even includes instructions for covert installation, such as, "Due to safety regulations, all modern vehicle dashboards are made of plastic and will not interfere with the Trackstick Pro's satellite reception."

Haberkern does not share my concerns about privacy. "I can't stop the husband and wife from checking up on their cheating spouses," he says. "But that's a small sector. [A Trackstick] is an asset when it comes to checking up on teenagers. So, one sort of negates the other. I hope that customers are using them within the law, but anything can be abused. The IRS, the White House, the Secret Service, the FBI, and Homeland Security are using them. We are kind of proud of that, regardless of the privacy concerns, and that is how I feel about it, given our situation today in this world. It is a good thing, as far as I'm concerned, because we know specifically that they are using these for tracking people that are, you know, terrorist suspects. We've seen enough of the e-mails, we know what's going on, we've gotten the phone calls, we can put two and two together. Personally, I don't have a problem with it."

Telespial means "to watch remotely" says Haberkern. "That's the premise of our company: it is using technology to watch people, objects that move, assets, things like that." His company's first rule, he says, is to keep things simple: use "plug and play" technology as much as possible and have "as few buttons as possible," so as to minimize the obstacles to widespread adoption. "Our premise is: low cost, large deployments, put it on as many things as possible, and track your assets without monthly recurring bills and without the need for a large infrastructure."

Telespial Systems has only five employees. Haberkern designs all the electronics himself, he says, and does all the firmware for it, while staff programmers do the Windows programming. This, he says, allows the company to take a product "from concept to marketplace within 16 weeks." The company launched its first product a year ago and will have three products as of January, he says.

Telespial Systems' two websites contain a few errors, many misspellings and ungrammatical sentences, and some gross exaggerations, such as "[T]he Trackstick line of products are rapidly becoming the standard GPS data collection tool for local and federal government agencies across the globe."

GIS Shops in the Portland Area: GeoNorth, Part 2

Following up on last week's profile of GeoNorth, here is the second part of my interview with Marshall Payne, Principal and Northwest Operations Manager and one question I put to Reggie Wilbanks, Senior Solutions Architect.

How would you characterize GeoNorth's role in Portland's rich GIS environment? Are you are the developers who assist public agencies get to the next level?

"Pretty much, yes. We like working with our customers and see them grow and do more on their own. We don't necessarily like to be in a position where they are 100 percent dependent on us, because I don't think that that is healthy either. We take a lot of time to try to really understand what it is that they are trying to do—what their capabilities are, what their long-term constraints might be, in terms of budget or staff—and try to come up with a solution that is easy to maintain, that will not become a burden, and that can grow with them as they grow. Demystifying the technology a little bit."

These agencies have their own developers, including some good ones…

"Some do, some don't. Sometimes, like in this case with the City of Portland, we work cooperatively with their development staff. In other cases, we work with organizations that develop and maintain data, but that is pretty much where it stops. As demands and pressures are created by internal users needing that information, there is usually a gap. It may be a skill gap, it may be a resource gap. They just simply don't have the time."

And they don't have enough on-going need for fulltime developers to hire any.

"That's right. You get the job done, and then you don't have to have that FTE on staff just to make that happen."

You are also accumulating experience from different systems.

"Right, and that is one of the great things about working with a diverse group of people and in different regions. We are not just doing work here, we are doing work across the country—from Boston to South Dakota to Memphis—and in different disciplines: utilities, police, fire, oil & gas. One of the aspects that I think attracts people to GeoNorth is the fact that we have that multidisciplinary experience. We can deal with environmental impact issues or with utilities that are challenged trying to map and maintain all of their assets. We are familiar with those different worlds. We can also take successful concepts or approaches that worked well in one discipline that have an application in another discipline."

What is special about GIS in the Portland area?

"I think that the Portland region is extremely advanced as far as GIS usage. I can't say specifically why that is. There is longevity going for it. It was one of the early adopters of the technology, way back in the late 80s. A lot of the organizations here, for whatever reason, hitched a ride on the ESRI technology. They have been the market leader and are carving out an even greater slice of the pie now. That decision of what technology to use for their mapping generation is a contributing factor. (Back in the 80s, in Anchorage, where I started, there were dueling systems: public works used a CAD-based system and the planning department used ArcInfo 3. Ultimately, ESRI ArcInfo won out and became the standard in that municipality.)"

Also, Oregonians have long had a very strong interest in land use planning, environmental protection, etc.—for which GIS is a very important tool.

"Yes, exactly. And you have to look at Metro as a leader in that. It had the vision to try to consolidate that type of information from this tri-county area, plus part of Clark County as well. If you think about what the technology was at the time, just trying to manage that amount of data was a huge effort. Not counting all the political aspects and trying to get everybody to come together. I think that was also unique to this region. You are correct on that."

Five years from now, what additional GIS capabilities would you like the City of Portland, for example, to have?

"That's a tough question. You never quite know what's right around the corner."

"There is a concerted effort to get to that sweet spot, where the traditional desktop look and feel and environment is now on the Web. It is getting there, with Flex, Flash, Ajax, and those types of technologies. The other thing, maybe not GIS-centric, is what the city is doing: putting in wireless Internet access. This will not only make the presentation of the data more effective and more usable, but it will also greatly increase access to it. Usage is going to dramatically increase, when we talk about GIS, because of such things as Google Earth, Google Maps, MapQuest, and the navigation systems you now see on many cars. It is out there now, you see it all the time. I wouldn't be surprised if in some of the small- to medium-sized population centers there isn't going to be a demand on their government to present more of this type of information than what they are used to seeing right now. Portland is way on the forefront. In terms of content and how they deliver it, I can't really see what additional work they would do there, short of maybe more content, maybe integrating other Web services."

Post 9/11, have you seen a counter-trend, toward restricting access to certain geographic information?

"There was a little bit of cutting back that we noticed. Actually, it kind of pre-dated 9/11: privacy issues kicked in. 9/11 pushed them over the edge, with the concern over security. Even way back when, imagery was censored: you'd get fuzzied-out areas of imagery. That's gone away too. I think that people realized that it was an over-reaction and that the effort to censor was actually creating a financial burden and a problem, because it created usability issues even for internal users."

Also, there are now so many sources of imagery that censorship is often futile.

"Exactly. There were so many points of access that if you really wanted to get the information there was nothing that was going to stop you."

What about real-time field data collection?

"AVL (automatic vehicle location) is still priced a little high. AVL can do a lot of things: it has various communications options—radios, wireless, cell phone control channels—but with AVL I can also know each time the dump truck has dumped its load and every time the snow plow blade has been picked up. If you don't need that information, you can really get by with a simple solution. You can buy a GPS receiver for $50-70 dollars and, as long as you have wireless access, I can instantly set up a pretty inexpensive system. I can take all of those vehicle locations and transmit them back to a single service, so that I can map my vehicles and know where they are within a few minutes of whenever they last reported. When you think about safety with maintenance—for example, electrical utilities trying to fix power lines during storms don't want to re-energize a line that is currently being fixed—or police and fire, I think that that is a huge area and we are going to see more of that happening. The ability to see who is closest and who is available enables more efficient dispatching. The changes in technology are just making it that much easier to put together solutions."

Reggie, where do you see this technology going?

"The limiting factors in providing good content really have been accessibility, including where I can get access and how fast that access is. The other big thing is the browser: People have wanted Web applications for a long time. You hear a lot about software as a service. All of that stuff runs through a browser. Until the browser was able to really start showing some of that content in a desktop manner, people shied away from it. Now, the new versions of Firefox and IE are really stepping it up, not just providing Web content as static pages, but also providing a lot more hooks to dynamic data, so that you can use it as an application. I see that stuff really taking off in the next six months or a year."

Spatial Thinking: Literacy for the 21st Century, by Phil Cruver

The author is a serial entrepreneur who has been CEO of two public companies and is currently President of KZO Networks.

We live in a visual world where we think and dream in pictures and symbolic images. When we read, we transform the words into mental pictures. Several millennia ago, visual imagery began taking a backseat to more efficiently produced words and numbers. With the advent of Gutenberg's printing press a little more that 500 years ago, words and numbers began to rule by allowing the average person to communicate in this new mass medium. New printed media, in the form of sentences and paragraphs, outstripped traditional technologies for mass-producing paintings, carvings, and other forms of visual communications.

As literacy proliferated, the written word and numbers further overshadowed the visual image in all aspects of education, religion, and commerce. However, humans are not efficient at processing text and numbers—which in the digital economy are increasingly more prevalent. The profundity of the old adage, "a picture is worth a thousand words" promises redemption for this new era. The pendulum is swinging back for the broadband Internet to provide the pipes for the proliferation of multimedia supplanting text and numbers. It's ironic and incongruous that high-tech, digital visualization technologies may facilitate this generation returning to their ancient biological roots in order to deal with a modern data-rich world.

Advances in geospatial technologies are producing a new paradigm for visualization—viewing data, images, and concepts spatially. The concept of "spatial" pertains to the characteristics of distribution, distance, direction, areas, and other aspects on the blue marble Earth's surface as viewed from space. Spatial awareness will unequivocally and eventually promote spatial thinking, thus opening a new window on the world for visualizing information from both the horizontal plane and vertical plane and its temporal characteristics (information at different instances in time). These amazing and innovative concepts and technologies are creating perspectives and perceptions in visualization that were previously unimaginable.

Google Earth is a geographical visualization program that encourages spatial thinking with captivating visual displays of the globe using satellite imagery. Its software has the power to engage viewers' imaginations with exciting, graphical visualizations that have the potential to revolutionize how they perceive and analyze mundane data. The concept was widely popularized by Neal Stephenson's famous science-fiction novel Snow Crash, where a piece of software called Earth (just like Google's) uses a virtual globe as a user interface for keeping track of all its geospatial data, including maps, architectural plans, weather data, and data from real-time satellite surveillance.

The recent publication of Learning to Think Spatially from the National Academy of Science further legitimizes the importance of spatial thinking:

Spatial thinking is based on a constructive amalgam of three elements: concepts of space, tools of representation, and process of reasoning. It depends on understanding the meaning of space and using the properties of space as a vehicle for structuring problems, for finding answers, and for expressing solutions. By visualizing relationships within spatial structures, we can perceive, remember, and analyze the static and, via transformations, the dynamic properties of objects and the relationships between objects. We can use representations in a variety of modes and media (graphic [text, image and video] tactile, auditory, and kinesthetic) to describe, explain, and communicate about the structure, operation, and function of those objects and their relationships.

In its report, the Academy featured the renowned DNA double helix as exemplifying the power of spatial thinking and suggested that this visualization cognition is at the heart of many great discoveries in science. It recommended a national commitment to the systemic educational efforts necessary to meet the goal of spatial literacy in order to equip the next generation of students for life and work in the 21st century.

In turn, spatial thinking galvanizes one's imagination, the catalyst that drives creativity, and is the faculty for realization. To create anything meaningful, one must foresee that created object or concept and realize it in his or her mind's eye. Spatial thinking unleashes the imagination, putting objects into perspective to communicate a meaningful message.

Marshall McLuhan had it wrong: It's the message, not the medium, that's the message. Whether a message is a symbol in the medium of clay, written on papyrus, parchment, paper, expressed in genetic code, encased in optic fiber, or transmitted by invisible waves, without imagination there would be no message. Albert Einstein had it right with "imagination is more important than knowledge."

Educational researchers and cognitive cognoscenti are recognizing Einstein's admonition in the context that spatial thinking inspiring the imagination will become the new literacy for the next generation of global knowledge workers.

About the Author

  • Matteo Luccio, MS
    Matteo Luccio, MS
    Matteo is the president of Pale Blue Dot Research, Writing, and Editing, LLC (, which specializes in public policy and geospatial technologies. He has been writing about geospatial technologies since 2000 for six different technical publications and was previously a public policy research analyst for a private think tank and for state and local government agencies.

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