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Friday, August 24, 2012

Wired Magazine: Find Parental Peace of Mind With the Amber Alert GPS



By James Floyd Kelly, father of two sons: We just got back from vacation. One week at the beach. It was great. I’ve been looking forward to it since, well… last year’s beach vacation. But with two young boys who are very mobile, it was looking to be a bit tricky to keep track of their location. We’ve always got family members joining us at the beach, so between my wife and myself, we didn’t always know exactly where our 5-year-old is at any given moment because he would often join a grandparent or uncle at the pool or on the beach or the tennis courts or somewhere else. He’s too young for a mobile phone, and he’s definitely too young for the freedom of movement I see offered to teenagers at the beach. I didn’t want to drive myself crazy with worry wondering where he was at any given minute, but… he’s 5 and he’s my child. I’m always going to worry, I guess.

The kind folks at Amber Alert recently offered me the chance to test out their latest child GPS tracking device, and I couldn’t think of any better time and place to try it out than on vacation. So, I charged it up, registered my account, and tweaked a few settings that I wanted to test out. And here’s what happened.v

First, from the company’s FAQ, is the following definition of the device:

The AAGPS V4 uses GPS (Global Positioning System) and cell ID technology to position the device. It also uses the wireless GSM network to transmit those positions to a web-based portal to view those positions.

What I took from that and my examination of the device is this — it’s a GPS device that also has an assigned phone number that can be used similarly to how our cell phones seem to know our locations. I don’t understand all the tech… I just know the results it provides, and they’re pretty scary-accurate.


 
The first test was easy enough. After charging the device and turning it on at the house, I logged into my account and was greeted immediately by a satellite view of my neighborhood, with the marker that represents the AmberAlert Device superimposed over my house. Exactly what I was expecting.

The next test was the SOS/emergency button. This one was a complete surprise, and my 2-year-old son can be thanked for a successful test. At some point when I wasn’t looking, he grabbed the device and held down the big button on the surface. My wife saw him do it… and about 10 seconds later the phone number that was on file with my user account rang. It’s a device that also supports two-way voice communication, so I can totally see how a child could be instructed to push the button if they felt in danger… and a parent (me) can immediately speak to his/her child and see what’s going on in addition to logging in and seeing exactly where they are on the map. (I mainly used the laptop and web browser, but they do have an Android app that gave me a portable solution to test — worked just fine.)



With the browser-based service, after you login you’ll be taken immediately to the satellite map image page that also contains menus and buttons for a large number of features and services. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but I eventually figured out the few items I wanted to set, leaving a large number of features turned off or not configured. There’s a Predator setting that can show you where registered sex offenders are located in your area and you can configure it to alert you if your child comes within 500 feet of these locations (units of measurement can also be changed to metric if desired). I turned on the feature momentarily and just about fell on the floor when I saw all the little blue-man icons pop up. I live in Atlanta, a solid metro area. The map was so blue I couldn’t make out any details. Zooming in helps, as my first instinct was to sell my house and get my family out of the area… after zooming in, I realized the closest registered offender to my home was about 5 miles away and not living next door. (That said, I’m now wondering about all the UN-registered offenders.) Still, if this is something you’d like to know about, the Amber Alert GPS device makes it super easy to find out. You can even type in an exact address (if you know, for example, where your child might be going in the future) and get the same blue-man icon feedback.

In addition to the Predator view, you can also configure zones, customized areas that you set and then get alerts if your child’s device crosses a certain line. I could see this being useful for older kids, but then I start thinking about my own teenage years and how I’d circumvent this feature and I quickly realize this feature is useful for kids who will play by the rules and keep the device on their person rather than leaving it in a backpack at their friend’s house on a Friday night while they’re crossing a state line to see AC/DC play on said same night (just a hypothetical… not admitting to anything, you understand?).

There are many more alerts available. One will alert you if the device is moving too fast… another will let you know when the device’s battery level drops below 15%. There’s a breadcrumb feature that will provide you with exact locations every 15, 30, 60, or 120 minutes. You can also add up to 9 additional people and give them the ability to check the device’s tracking status and receive alerts.

 
The device offers an amazing level of control, from simply checking the current location of the device all the way to tweaking settings to let you know the exact moment a child crosses a boundary (entering school grounds), or gets into a speeding car (you set the maximum speed that triggers an alert), or gets too close to a No-Fly-Zone (such as the one you’ve currently defined as a 500 foot diameter circle going around the neighborhood Hooter’s restaurant).

The Amber Alert GPS device operates similar to a mobile phone — you’ll need to pick from two different subscription options depending on how you wish to use the device. The differences between the $14.99/month level (Basic Package) and the $24.99/month level (Premium Package) are mostly with the various alert services (breadcrumbs, Predator alert, etc.) but there are also differences in the number of text message alerts and the overage charges for voice communication. You can check out all the details on the services here.

You can purchase the Amber Alert device in various colors, and each device also comes with different methods of transportation. For my 5 year old, I quickly learned that he wasn’t going to wear it on his person with the small pouch. He also didn’t like carrying it on his wrist with the wrist strap. That left me with planting it in various bags (beach bag, backpack) that he had on or near him for most of the vacation. Now that he’s back in school, it’s fairly easy to attach to his school bag — every child is checked when they leave for pickup to make sure they have their bag, so I’m not too worried about him leaving it behind. And when he goes home two days a week with a friend, I can easily check to make sure he’s where he’s supposed to be. (By the way, the company’s website shows the device attached to the shoulder straps on older kids’ backpacks, but my son’s school requires the school bag for kindergarten.)

I know that personal tracking devices come with a lot of debate. Some folks are very concerned about their children’s privacy, while others might have some concerns that the device could be used by someone else to track a child’s movement. All access to the information for this device is done with a username and password, so I’ve made certain to create a strong password that only I know. But still… I know some people don’t like the idea of tracking devices for any reason. That said, I have absolutely no problem with using the device with my young children. Until they are old enough to drive and/or be trusted to travel to safe and parent-approved locations,  it’s my wife’s and my responsibility to know where our children are. And I’m quite comfortable placing this device on my son’s belt or in his backpack or school bag. I’ve explained what it is to him, and how important it is to not drop it, get it wet, etc… and he knows not to press the big button or let his friends do it unless there’s an emergency. By no means am I using it as a replacement for knowing where my children are or are supposed to be, but having the ability to check in with a simple login on my phone during the day and seeing the icon centered on the school or his best friend’s home… a nice breath-easy moment.

You can find out all about the Amber Alert GPS device by visiting amberalertgps.com — they’ve got a ton of information about the device and their services, as well as a helpful FAQ and a toll-free phone number you can call with any questions. I’m still learning about a few additional things I can do with this device, and the company has done a great job of answering my questions as I try to figure out the proper level of monitoring for my son.
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Original Article Published 8/16/12 on Wired.com: http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2012/08/amber-alert-gps/

Author James Floyd Kelly who lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and two sons. He is the founder of thenxtstep.com (LEGO Mindstorms blog) and his latest books are "Teach Yourself iOS 5 in 10 Minutes" and "Mars Base Command."


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