From coconuts to GPS: A brief history of navigation

It's good, but it's no coconut. Image: Getty.

If I ask Google:

It helpfully displays a map of where I used to live:

Google is very good at knowing where I used to be. My phone is constantly keeping track of my location and uploading it to their servers. It has stored my location 579,088 times since September 2013.

Each location stored looks like this:

{
 “timestampMs” : “1431497952458”,
 “latitudeE7” : 513453840,
 “longitudeE7” : -1015043,
 “accuracy” : 27,
}

This isn’t that easy to read. The E7 is an instruction to divide by 10,000,000, to reach a traditional set of latitude and longitude coordinates. “timestampMs” tells us that wherever 51.345384° N -0.1015043° E is, I was there at 1,4314,9795,2458 milliseconds after midnight on the 1st January 1970.

Even knowing what each of those numbers represent, we need to do some work to get these back into a human context. By putting the numbers through mapping software I can find out that “51.345384°, -0.1015043°” is Purley Oaks station in South Croydon. By running the timestamp through a conversion system, I can see I was apparently there at 7:19:12 AM on the 13 May 2015. This makes perfect sense, it was part of my daily commute at the time — I’d have been there most days at that time.

Most of the data stored about my location places me somewhere I lived or somewhere I worked. Just occasionally, I do something interesting and the database gets to store whole new sets of coordinates. If I take several years of this data I can produce maps of the sums of my positions over time:

This is my life as latitude and longitude, expressed in a way that can be easily understood by a human. Where I’ve spent any amount of time the map is redder; journeys appear as snail trails across the country.

Google’s algorithms don’t require any of this “coloured in map” nonsense. After a few weeks, your Android phone can make a reasonable guess at where your work and home are, based on where you spend most of your days and where you spend most of your nights. It doesn’t need to ask — that would be intrusive.

To determine a position on a globe while inconveniently being stuck on that globe you need fixed external references. Fortunately the universe is full of these.

One of simpler means sailors used to work out their relative position from destination was a kamal – a board with a hole in the middle. By putting a string through the hole and holding one end of the string in your teeth, you position the lower edge of the board on the horizon and move it further away until the board obscures your target star (typically Polaris — if visible).

An enthusiastic Wikipedia editor showing how the kamal works. Image: Markus Nielbock/Wikimedia Commons.

The length of the string between your teeth and the board tells you your latitude. By knowing the length of string required for certain ports, you could adjust course to navigate to a place. Using nothing more than your teeth, a string, a plank of wood, a star – and the horizon.

In Polynesia (lacking in a helpful pole star) titiro ‘ētū – “star peekers” – made of nothing but coconuts and seawater were used to navigate to specific islands. To use these, you cut off the top of the coconut and make a ring of holes around the base. You then make a hole near the top for the target star and fill it with water up to the holes (with coconut oil to maintain surface tension). You look through the device at the star at its highest point; if the water inside the device is flat, you are on the same latitude as your destination. The stars will guide you with the simplest of tools, if you know how to use them.


Progression east-west (longitude) can be understood if you know the difference between high-noon on a clock set at a fixed location (Greenwich) and a clock set at the current location. Each hour difference represents 15° of travel longitudinally (1/24 of 360°). Simple enough, if you have a clock that can keep time on the ocean – but that was a complicated problem to solve. Before that, all sailors could really do is line up on the right latitude and go for it.

To make use of more markers than the sun and North Star, you could use nautical almanacs and sextants. These almanacs were essentially large lists of what celestial objects should appear at certain points of the sky, and at what time they can be expected to do so. By using the sextant to compare predicted appearances to actual locations, you can determine the distance to fixed positions.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) has mostly replaced the need for these tables. Reliable but not available on-demand stars have been replaced by artificial celestial bodies that spend their whole lives yelling about where they are and what time they think it is. By comparing signals from several different satellites to the time your GPS device thinks it is, you can triangulate your position on the earth within a few meters.

Few mobile phones contain true GPS: mostly they use aGPS or WPS. aGPS uses the resources of the mobile network to speed up reconciliation based on fragmented signals, but WPS (Wireless Positioning System) is something different altogether. It takes advantage of the fact that we littered our world (especially urban areas, where GPS struggles) with millions of radio location beacons, in the form of Wi-Fi access points.

While the vans with the weird cameras were taking pictures of every road in the world, they were also mapping the radio landscape we have made: each house with a Wi-Fi access point, broadcasting a unique identifier. By mapping these to a true GPS reading, location services can provide a guide to any device with a wifi chip. If you read Device #1053443 with 50 per cent strength and Device #10232321 with 74 per cent strength and Device #24324239 with 60 per cent strength, the chances are you are “here” — the most likely place where those signals converge at that strength.

These vans are no longer necessary: while walking around your phone will pick up on any new or unknown access points. With sufficient logs of these devices, their location can be deduced by comparison to known devices and used for future navigation. As well as recording our every step, our phones are automated radio cartographers. This is still ultimately working on similar principles to the nautical almanac and sextant, it just has a much larger look-up table and uses thousands of man-made stars to light the way.

As navigation has become much easier there is also the risk of becoming too dependent on what might turn out to be fragile technology. The US Navy is currently re-introducing celestial navigation training. so that its sailors can figure out where they are in the event of an attack on the GPS system. After the apocalypse, we might find ourselves getting around by holding a bricked phone up to the horizon and measuring the length of the headphone cord to our teeth. 

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

****

Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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