After last year’s pilot run I actually planned to go live this time on another trip to India, using Social Hiking to publicly track important places of my work. Several smaller issues – many not related to this service – however, crossed the plan and I realized that I am still in the phase of experimenting.
Below I will try to describe the intended use, analyze the encountered problems and try to suggest possible solutions.
Projected Use Cases
There are two distinct ways how I initially planned to use Social Hiking:
- The travels were part of a project that comprises various activities. Especially one of them, our microfinance program, offers an excellent opportunity to utilize Social Hiking: In this program, individuals can support small grassroots projects of Burmese refugees by affordable donations and we, by providing the framework, guarantee that 100% of the collected funds arrive at the grantees. This naturally involves a big deal of advertising of the program and reporting about the funded projects and how the money was spent.
In the ideal case scenario I would use Social Hiking to take our supporters on a virtual trip, starting from our organization’s home base, letting them experience to dive within hours into an entirely different world – the truly incredible India and, hidden in hardly visible places, the living conditions of refugees. I would then, while visiting the grassroots groups and the typical locations of their work, send updates to the public map and add further media like photos and videos. Thanks to Bambuser it would even be possible to broadcast a live video while supporters at home have the possibility to chat with the person in the video.
- In a second activity, technically skilled refugees would learn how to use mobile technology, online maps and social media. Particularly the group map feature of Social Hiking (originally designed for people who travel in a team or who together participate in one event, e.g. a competition) would be handy to let the students experiment together with these technologies that certainly will play an important role in their future lives and careers.
These plans would have been very ambitious for someone who travels alone with a scary schedule. Already before I left I realized that I would have to scale down my plans.
In particular, the following problems appeared:
- The location data was generated solely by smartphones. I tried to use one Android-based newer phone (Sony Ericsson) and one stone-age Nokia. Retrieving the location was very unreliable, especially indoors. In the majority of cases the software aborted with a timeout error and flawless operation became the rare exception.
- Differently than planned, I was – like last year – restricted to sending location data through Tweets (using Twimgo on Nokia, since I couldn’t get the retrieval of locations working on the other phone). The promising Instamapper mostly failed to establish my position and, if it succeeded, apparently did not forward it to my account even while Internet was working. Most Twitter apps don’t even seem to be able to add the location to a Tweet. While Bambuser videos very reliably identified my location, it was not possible to send this meta information to Social Hiking where only the time stamp is used to interpolate the location.
- While mobile data transmission in India is inexpensive – 1 rupee per MB, that is about 1.4 euro cents or 1.1 pence, charged in fractions when used less – the real problem is how to get hold of an Indian SIM card. While I managed to borrow one from a friend, this card mysteriously stopped working one early morning just before I left to the airport so that this little incident created a huge gap on my map.
The question of connectivity becomes more than just a financial matter when you travel to Northeast India. In Guwahati, Assam, my European mobile phones did not even offer roaming. This communication gap resulted in a distorted route because on the way back I already owned a SIM card for this region and could therefore post updates from places that I have had to miss out on the way there, which looked like I passed there only on the way back.
- At the training sessions, we lacked the time to set up the users’ devices for sending location data. This problem was not related to Social Hiking.
- And, last but not least, fiddling with devices, trying to provide a clear view of the sky for the GPS, establishing mobile connections, launching and re-launching apps, trying different settings, and typing with one hand updates on shaky rikshaws convinced me that you need to plan for sufficient additional time at each place besides your work (or, alternatively, to have one person doing the primary work, the “hiking” part, while another person is doing the updating, the “social” part).
Social Hiking for NGOs in the Field
These are the main requirements that I consider relevant for NGOs to utilize Social Hiking:
- Affordable equipment: For us this means to use smartphones because with a budget that is even considered small in our low-income home country you can only dream of buying extra equipment. In the Czech Republic, iPhones are found only in the pockets of business people and expats, while NGO staff predominantly uses outdated feature phones and only occasionally Nokia and Android-based devices. I assume that due to the comparably inexpensive hardware and its open architecture, Android will eventually establish itself as the first choice for most charities during the next 1 or 2 years.
- Painless data collection and transmission: I have not managed to figure out how to cache the data during connectivity problems and send it only later when I’m online again, although this option to upload previously collected data does exist on the Social Hiking website. Ideally, the device or software would automatically switch between online and offline mode, between transmission and caching.
- Operation that doesn’t distract you from your actual work: What is needed is a simple app that can be installed and operated by people without special technical skills and without having to spend considerable time experimenting with settings and connections. For troubleshooting (e.g. how to get GPS data) I spent hours (including frequent power cuts) searching on Google and browsing through other users’ experiences. For most NGOs, however, this is not feasible on field trips.
- Selective tracking: I mention it only as important point on this list although this has not been an issue. As NGO staff you don’t want to share your entire trip including the souvenir shopping but only relevant periods that can be made public. This requirement is particularly important when NGOs have to protect their clients and partners. On my trip, I visited refugees who feared harassment by local authorities and it would not have been a good idea to show their location on a public map. For a typical field trip it is not necessary to establish a continuous track. Rather, you want to create a chain of relevant places on your way. I therefore prefer to determine manually when to send a beacon.
Based on my experiences I would like to formulate the following wish list for Social Hiking:
- It would be awesome if Social Hiking could offer an own app that runs on inexpensive Android devices, where tracking can easily be activated and deactivated and that automatically caches data for later transmission when the network doesn’t work.
- Since work of NGOs strongly relies on visual media, it would be helpful if the meta data from Bambuser videos (and possibly other media types) could be directly used to establish the location.
- Due to problems with SIM cards, roaming, possible legal restrictions to use devices that interact with satellites, and situations where you simply cannot take out your phone while security personnel is watching you, it would be very helpful if you could later manually edit your track on the Social Hiking website and add further places. If it must be feared that users fake their adventures, I would suggest to display these additional beacons in a different color and clearly mark them as manually added.
Particularly if you start using Social Hiking for reporting about your work, every missing place would eventually become a credibility problem because it might look to inexperienced people as if you actually have not been there.
- Similarly, it might be necessary to remove a beacon if, for example, the people there face unexpected problems with authorities because of their contact with foreigners. Presently, all you could do in this case is to take the entire map offline. (wrong – see edit at bottom)
- I am also missing a (user-friendly) possibility to add comments and additional media (photos, images and links) to existing beacons. At some places I would have loved to add “Here I planned to record a talk with XYZ but a by-standing police officer forced us to keep a low profile.” or simply “On this photo you see on the horizon the Himalayas – gorgeous!” If we can have a dedicated Social Hiking app, it would of course be great if this information could be added directly on the spot: take a snapshot, write a caption and post them as a beacon.
- Since most NGOs are chronically short of money, it would be an attractive feature if beacons could be ready to become “things” (in geek speak) of Flattr. All it would take is to connect the account to the Flattr API and then each beacon can display a Flattr button, which, once clicked, creates a Flattr thing and sends a micro-donation. This would be a nice reward for anyone reaching the peak of a mountain, and NGOs would be able to organize a fundraising event where supporters can send money for every completed part of a track.
- On a side note: I found it difficult to search users and maps on the Social Hiking website. I am sure there must be a way how to do it, but where? It could be considered to use the pre-defined types of maps and tags to filter the users, their maps and their routes on the front end.
In summary, I cannot yet imagine Social Hiking in the hands of my not-overly-tech-savvy colleagues while they struggle their way through Indian suburbs. But the potential is there and only needs to be unlocked by small improvements. As described above, this service would be tremendously useful for our work and I believe that many other charities could benefit from it, be it for fundraising events, awareness raising, fact finding trips, or providing transparent reporting about their activities.
- I noticed only now that Viewranger seems to offer a free version. On their website they write “Buy the app now…” – a bit confusing. I will give it a try.
- Also discovered now that you can indeed delete beacons. This functionality can be found in the menu “Location Sources.” I was searching on the maps. It would be a nice improvement to have a link to delete a beacon directly at the Beacon ID.