Sunday, July 11, 2010

Geotagging Emails

Today I was reading a letter my mother had sent to her aunt 3 days after I was born. Handwritten three pages, describing how I was still in the children's ward, how my brother had visited me and more personal stuff. But that's not what this post ist about. It's about the header of the letter, which got me thinking. It read: "Göttingen, 27.12.79" above the salutation.

So apart from senders address on the envelope, the letter included another header stating the location and the date. Where and when the letter had been written is part of the letter. Another clue as to from where the letter is sent is the postmark on the stamp.

The way I understand email headers is that they are for adding metadata to the content of the email, similiar to the envelope. First and foremost of course, it includes the addressee, but also the sender's name and email address. Another header is the date the email was sent at. In the old days, an email address may have given you a clue as to where the person is located, the first email to arrive in germany was sent to "rotert@germany", which was a bit unspecific, but you get the idea.

Things have changed and now most people have an email address that doesn't give a clue about their current location. Sometimes other email headers may provide a clue, for example IP-addresses can be geolocated, but since the rise of smart phones, emails are written from anywhere. The simplest way to let the recipient know about your whereabouts is by simply writing it into the body of the mail, but that's not really machine readable.

I propose introducing an optional email header that specifies the senders geographic location.

X-Sender-Geo-Location-Lon: 13.409082
X-Sender-Geo-Location-Lat: 52.528087
X-Sender-Geo-Location-Accuracy: 500
X-Sender-Geo-Location-Placename: Berlin, Germany

If a location is provided, accuracy is required, the address field can be used for displaying, if not available it can be reverse geolocated. But those are just details. I think parts of the geolocation API can be used or adopted, like altitude, heading and speed.

I would love to hear what people think of adding a geo tag to email headers. It shouldn't be too difficult to write thunderbird add-on that let's you specify these header components and display a map if they are present. Or a gadget for gmail.


James said...

I would prefer people not know where I am when I'm working from home, or on a business trip (ie. "would you like to rob my empty house?"). There are email footer programs that do this if you want to publish where you are (gmail).

Sean said...

Cool idea but at times you dont want people to know where you are, you should be able to turn it on and off when you want.

Anony-X said...

he said optional, thereby its not something that would be always on and would be an option.

Anonymous said...

That sure sounds like a slippery slope. Before creating new standards to geo-locate people without their knowledge in their emails, perhaps we need laws that protect people from companies and governments who use this data for targeted advertising and more nefarious purposes?

Real ID, geolocated IP addresses, and now geolocated email? How about first we put the heads of the major telecom companies in jail for giving away protected information to the Bush administration? Oh that's right, Pelosi gave them retroactive immunity.

Normal people don't want this, and neither should you.

Anonymous said...

ok, i'm against that idea, because of my privacy. but i don't agree with "normal people" anonymous said. normal people don't give a fuck whether there are additional info about location. those who are scared of something might be bothered

Angus said...

@Anonymous ("slippery slope"): This isn't about some conspiracy to geo-locate people from their emails without their knowledge. It's a proposal for a standard way of adding your location to your own emails using your own email client, if you want to tell people where you are.

Steve Clay said...

Simple first step: add it to all "sent" mail copies.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a solution waiting for a problem...

In the rare case that you want to communicate your location, just type it out!

Anonymous said...

Useless feature, if i really want you to know where i am, i will write it down myself. i think this "feature" would be used maybe 1 out of 10 times? or do you really want to let your boss, co-workers, clients, etc want to know where _exactly_ you are?

Greetings from Munich, (would you like to know my position? why?)