Google Inc. on Feb. 4 introduced new "social mapping" software with several implications for schools and their students–from allowing friends to find each others’ locations on or off campus, to tracking young students’ whereabouts on a field trip or if they go missing.

With an upgrade to its mobile maps, Google hopes to prove it can track people on the go as effectively as it searches for information on the internet. The company’s new software will enable people with mobile phones and other wireless devices to transmit their whereabouts to family and friends automatically.

The feature, dubbed "Latitude," expands upon a tool introduced in 2007 to allow mobile phone users to check their own location on a Google map with the press of a button.

"This adds a social flavor to Google maps and makes it more fun," said Steve Lee, a Google product manager.

It also could raise privacy concerns, but Google is doing its best to avoid a backlash by requiring each user to manually turn on the tracking software and making it easy to turn off or limit access to the service.

Google also is promising to retain only a small amount of information about its users’ movements. Only the last location picked up by the tracking service will be stored on Google’s computers, Lee said.

The software plots a user’s location–marked by a personal picture on Google’s map–by relying on cell phone towers, global positioning systems, or a Wi-Fi connection to deduce their location. The system can follow people’s travels in the United States and 26 other countries.

It’s left up to each user to decide who can monitor their location.

The social-mapping approach is similar to a service already offered by Loopt Inc., a 3-year-old company located near Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. Loopt’s service is compatible with more than 100 types of mobile phones.

Google’s new software also is similar to a project at MIT that provides information about where students are on campus whenever they’re connected to the school’s wireless network. (See "MIT maps wireless users across campus.")

To start out, Google Latitude will work on Research In Motion’s BlackBerry and devices running on Symbian software or Microsoft’s Windows Mobile. It also will operate on some T-Mobile phones running on Google’s Android software, and it eventually will work on Apple’s iPhone and iTouch.

To widen the software’s appeal, Google is offering a version that can be installed on personal computers as well.

The PC access is designed for people who don’t have mobile phones but still might want to keep tabs on their children or someone else special, Lee said.

Google can plot a person’s location within a few yards if it’s using GPS, but the company might be off by several miles if it’s relying on transmission from cell phone towers. People who don’t want to be precise about their whereabouts can choose to display just the city instead of a specific location.

There are no current plans to sell any advertising alongside Google’s tracking service, although analysts believe knowing a person’s location eventually will unleash new marketing opportunities. Google has been investing heavily in the mobile market during the past two years in an attempt to make its services more useful to people when they’re away from their office or home computers.

Links:

Google Latitude

Loopt Inc.


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