Mozilla Location Service – The Next Wave

Hanno Schlichting

Today, we celebrate the first birthday of the Mozilla Location Service (MLS), our experiment in geolocation at Mozilla. Thanks to a lot of help from volunteers, MLS covers a large part of the Earth, proving that our work together can build a usable location service.

Starting from these foundations, we’re now working on building a production service that can provide location services to millions of web users. This is a good time to pause and look back on what we’re doing it, why we’re doing it, and how you can help.

First of all, what is a “location service”? A location service is how your device knows where it is relative to the things around it, like WiFi access points and cell towers. Having a location service is crucial when when you can’t get a GPS signal (like in some urban areas) or don’t have a GPS chip (like in a laptop). Right now, location services are closed, proprietary services, run by Google, Apple, Skyhook, and a few other companies.

There are a few reasons that Mozilla is developing a location service. Location in general has become a very important part of how we use the Internet, and the Mobile Internet is becoming an even more critical part of our lives. So it’s important for the world to have an open and trustworthy location service.

Having an open location service is also critical for some of our key initiatives such as:

  • The FirefoxOS initiative, which aims to bring user choice and the principles of the open web to mobile phones and the mobile ecosystem. MLS in conjunction with FirefoxOS has the potential to provide location services to the millions of users who are transitioning from a feature phone to a smartphone.
  • Providing location information to open-source operating systems.

However, as important as this project is, it can’t succeed without you. The MLS can’t locate phones if it doesn’t know where access points and towers are and we rely on the community to collect this data. We call the process of gathering data “stumbling”. When you stumble for Mozilla, it means you’re traveling around with a GPS device (like a GPS-enabled cell phone) and “listening” for WiFi and cellular signals. When a signal is found, it’s matched up with its GPS location and uploaded and stored in the location service database. Then whenever another device using the service sees that WiFi or cellular tower, the MLS server knows where it is (since it knows where the WiFi or cellular tower is).

You can help MLS get better in a few ways:

  • Stumble: If you’ve got an Android phone, you can install our Stumbler app and start collecting data. Check out the coverage map and see if you can brighten up some dark spots.
  • Contribute: Like all Mozilla software, the Stumbler is an open-source project, with many contributors around the world. Check it out on github and send us a pull request.
  • Discuss: We like to talk about geolocation, whether it’s about how to make MLS better, how to improve stumbling, or how to do cool stuff with location information. You can find us on our dedicated mailing list or come talk to us in our IRC room #geo on Mozilla’s IRC server.

This is an exciting time for geolocation in the open Web. Through the MLS, we’re making location services available to millions more devices, and with more transparency than ever. If you take a look at our roadmap for the year, we’ve got some other big ideas coming up, like an open, community-sourced IP-geo database.

Richard Barnes