Passive location tracking is a bit geeky and beyond what many people would find interesting to spend any time on. The reason I do it is because I enjoy revisiting the past through maps. Even a boring day where I didn’t leave the house all day looks funky, here is March 14, 2008:


I have no idea why I was home all day. Sick perhaps? Some days provide enough spatial clues to trigger memories. Here is February 25, 2010, 8 years and 2 days ago:


I remember that day very clearly! My wife (then fiancée) and I set out on a weekend trip to Healdsburg, California. Let’s dig in and have some fun!

For some reason I only turned on my GPS in the Walgreens parking lot on 51st and Telegraph in Oakland. (We did live on Telegraph but further north.) Perhaps we had some coffee / breakfast at Pizzaiolo across the street, something we did often.


Not far into the trip, our car (a rental from Rent-a-Relic, miraculously still in business) broke down on the Richmond / San Rafael bridge approach, right past the toll station:


Once back on the road, we headed for Healdsburg, where we went to the Bear Republic brewery. (Racer 5 was, and remains, one of our favourite IPAs.)


We stayed in a really nice bed and breakfast, the Raford Inn (they still send me emails with special offers.)


So many good memories from a 1.2MB GPX file! This is fun, right?

Around 2009, Google got into passive location tracking. After acquiring Dodgeball (founded by Dennis Crowley who would go on to found Foursquare), they launched Google Latitude, probably inspired by it. Latitude let you track and share your location, and I believe it also let you see history. Google being Google, I can’t imagine it didn’t at least retain your location history, even if you had no access to it yourself.


Image source: Itechfuture

Eventually and inevitably, Latitude was sunsetted, to be succeeded by the Google Maps timeline we have now.


Google services are very popular for a few reasons: ubiquitous availability, convenience, and cost (free as in beer). For those exact reasons, I started using Google’s location history services instead of carrying around a GPS tracker around 2011. All the service needs to work is for some Google app with location access to be installed on your phone, and for location history to be enabled on your Google account.

Until last weekend.

For a number of reasons, I want to reduce my dependence on Google services. The most important one is that I don’t understand my relationship with Google, and that makes me feel uncomfortable. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer to use goods and services that I understand, that are priced in a way I can understand. I pay $50 a year, I get a great email service. Simple.

So I started to look for an alternative way to accomplish my goal of passive location tracking. There is no shortage of GPS tracking apps for iOS, but most of them are optimized to record specific activities on demand, and lack the functionality required for background tracking, such as automatic pausing and tweaking the obvious trade-off between battery drain and accuracy / resolution.

A great alternative location to look for apps in fringy geeky categories is Github. There I found Overland, which seemed to do exactly what I wanted. It is developed by Aaron Parecki (whose Life Stack should interest you if you’ve read this far.) Even cooler, it can send logs to a configurable endpoint. And cooler still, he also wrote a companion server application, Compass, that will consume the logs from the app and present them in a very agreeable way. Fantastic!

So after a little setup, I now have my own location tracking / history server. It hums along in the background, so far working flawlessly.


Still to figure out: how to convert and dump my existing 7+ GB of GPX files, and my 6 or so years of Google location history, into the Compass server. To their credit, Google offers a great ‘takeout’ service that lets you retrieve most of the information you ever put into their systems, including location history in JSON or KML format. It looks a little messy, but it can probably be made sense of.


Time to get Aaron a few beers!