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Why Apple Tracker-Gate Is the Future of Journalism

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, April 22 2011

What an unnamed iPhone user's location file looks like after being run through programmers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden's iPhone Tracker app.

There have been some grumbling in tech circles ever since Apple tracker-gate broken that this was the worst kept secret the developer world. Everybody knew iOS devices were tracking your movements to and fro. But somehow Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, a pair of programmers, put up on a post on O'Reilly Radar and now, suddenly, we have Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Ed Markey writing angry letters to Steve Jobs.

But let me suggest that there's an interesting wrinkle to what has gone down with Apple tracker-grate that has implications for everything from open source to open government to open data to the the political applications of mapping to, yes, the future of journalism.

Allan and Warden didn't just put up a written-up report of their findings on O'Reilly Radar -- they also linked to a page on GitHub where they had posted iPhone Tracker, an app that let anyone map out what their iPhone had recorded about their travels about the face of the globe. It's drop-dead simple. Running on the open-source OpenStreetMap project, it's almost a bit frightening how quickly and easily the pair's app ferrets out the offending data file on your computer and turns it into a geographic visualization. Gizmodo jokes that posting your own iPhone tracking map is the "hot new trend." It shouldn't surprise us. Humans like maps. We're geographic creatures, tied to some point on the planet at almost all times. And you can talk about open data and possible privacy violations and yadda yadda and find yourself tired and with nothing much changed. Or you can give people the chance to easily plot data incredibly personal to them on a map, and let them get the punch to the gut (or shiver of delight, or both, depending on your makeup) that comes from seeing with their own eyes an idea that has long been floating around in the air.

Root data to the earth -- or better yet, let people root it to the earth themselves -- and you've got yourself, it seems, a real story. Download the iPhone Tracker app here.