GPS Traveling in New Directions

“Continental Drift” by GPS artist Michael Wallace. Photo courtesy of Michael Wallace

“Continental Drift” by GPS artist Michael Wallace. Photo courtesy of Michael Wallace

A version of this piece was published in Columbia News Service on March 29th, 2013. 

Alan Czyzewski knows baby Jesus will be safe every Christmas holiday.

Czyzewski, an improvement committee member of Saint Ambrose Church in New Jersey, has BrickHouse Security install a Global Positioning System device into the little savior every year so he can track it from his computer if scoundrels try to steal it from the nativity scene.

“Thirty or 40 years ago it was unheard of,” said Czyzewski. “You have to be proactive with technology. I’m just happy we can do something that safeguards.”

GPS technology is being embedded in various items, making it easy to track and locate things. Nativity scenes, search and rescue dogs, art and promotions are but samples of a growing diversity of unusual, but sometimes practical uses for GPS as the technology is being expanded to more than just directions.

About eight years ago Czyzewski first wanted to create a nativity scene, but was worried of reports of thefts of baby Jesuses in nearby churches.

He contacted BrickHouse Security to find a solution, and that begat the company’s Saving Jesus program. Now more than 100 churches, organizations and communities around the country use the free program every year to guard the star of their nativity scene.

A small, conceable GPS unit hidden in baby Jesus allows Czyzewski to track baby Jesus’ block-by-block movements on BrickHouse Security’s Web site, and an alert would be sent to Czyzewski’s computer if it were moved more than 15 feet from the nativity scene.

Czyzewski said there have never been any thefts of baby Jesus during the time the GPS has been used in the nativity scene, and no additional security is used.

GPS tracking technology has also paved the way for artists to turn the world into their canvas and their bodies into a drawing tool.

Elaine Pawlowicz, an art professor at the University of North Texas, realized the potential for GPS art when the security company Track What Matters contacted her to have her students make designs with the technology in the 2012 fall semester.

When the trackers were turned on, the students’ movements were traced for one day on a virtual map on the security company’s website.

Although artists such as Jeremy Wood, who created gpsdrawing.com, and Michael Wallace, who makes southeast Baltimore his GPS drawing pad, have been using the technology for a while, the concept was new to the students, some of whom found it creepy.

“I was like what? Are you guys going to be tracking my every move?” Ryann Worley, a student, recalled saying.

The receivers were built so that they could only track movement faster than walking speed, so students used cars and bicycles to make their designs around neighborhoods.

While some students chose to make random lines and scribbles by turning on the device while they did everyday activities, others planned routes to create specific designs.

“If they wanted to draw some sort of monster, robot or whatever they thought of, they would have to figure out a neighborhood that would allow them to do that,” Pawlowicz said. “What is interesting is we were learning how to draw using space and time.”

Because the class taught fine art, students were told to conceptualize a second drawing based on their GPS pieces. Four participants were chosen as winners and given $500 each.

Worley, a winner, didn’t plan her GPS art on a map. Instead she turned on the tracker as she completed errands.

Ryann Worley's first GPS art. Photo Courtesy Ryan Worley.

Ryann Worley’s first GPS art. Photo Courtesy Ryan Worley.

Her unplanned art looks like a random, crooked path with loops like an old phone cord. It reminded her of the children’s poem “Invention” by Shel Silverstein, where a girl is trying to to plug a light bulb into the sun with a cord. That poem inspired Worley’s second drawing and her GPS art string is lying near the center of the final piece.

By using GPS to track people, Pawlowicz thought there could be a privacy problem and told students not to track their girlfriends or boyfriends with the device.

Swiss food maker Nestlé avoided tracking privacy concerns with a Willy Wonka-ish promotion in the United Kingdom that began in September 2012.

Nestlé disguised GPS devices as Kit Kat, Aero and Yorkie candy bars in a contest called “We will find you.”

Someone who discovered a GPS device instead of a candy bar could activate the device, which sent a signal to a Nestlé team tasked with finding the winner within 24 hours. The wrapper made it clear that the finder did not have to turn on the GPS if there were privacy concerns.

Six winners were eventually found and each received 10,000 pounds, or about $15,000. Nestlé is unsure whether it will try a similar stunt in the future, but believed it was a successful promotion.

“The promotion was different to any other on-pack promotion and this has led to a lot of interest with consumers,” said James Maxton, a Nestlé representative. “The idea for ‘We will find you’ was another opportunity to get people talking and excited about the brand.”

The North Carolina Canine Emergency Response Team uses Garmin Astro GPS collars with its search and rescue dogs. Photo courtesy of NCCERT

The North Carolina Canine Emergency Response Team uses Garmin Astro GPS collars with its search and rescue dogs. Photo courtesy of NCCERT

GPS tracking also makes for more practical uses as well. For about four years the North Carolina Canine Emergency Response Team has placed GPS units on its dogs that search for missing people or human remains.

The volunteer organization employs GPS collars, such as the Garmin Astro brand, and Navin GPS loggers. The collars, some of which cost about $600, have GPS antennas and relay real-time information to a handheld logger, which tells handlers where the dogs are searching. The device displays a map showing how far the dog is from its handlers.

The logger collects GPS data of where it has traveled. Later team members can input that data in a Google map to reveal a history of area traveled.

GPS has limits in search and rescue though. The dogs and handlers still have to discover their subjects themselves.

“We’ve located people at range, but the technology didn’t do it,” Mac Morgan, chief of the organization, said. “If you don’t know where they are you can’t navigate to them with a GPS.”

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