Tech – keeping in touch

Smartphones aren’t just for photography..

Yes – my iPhone wasn’t just handy for taking photos – I discovered I could actually make calls on it, too!   But more than that, I also used a Buddy Beacon.   If you’re intrigued, read on…

If I had to name the single most useful piece of technology that I carried with me, it would almost certainly have to be my iPhone.

iPhone 4s photo
My trusty iPhone 4s (not in its protective case)

Being away for so long, and often in quite isolated spots and walking alone, I wanted to make sure that I could keep in touch regularly with the outside world. Also, over 200 people had sponsored me, so I wanted to be able to let them know what I was doing to earn their money.

I carried an iPhone 4s which was my main means of keeping in touch on an immediate basis.   I called home every night, where I could get a phone signal. Generally there was at least a 2g signal which was ok for calling if not for data. Occasionally if there was a good wifi network I could video call home with FaceTime or Skype.

In the evenings, I wrote and posted my blog (see blogging page) which was a great way of letting everyone know what was happening without clogging up inboxes. I also posted on FaceBook and Tweeted every night. All excellent for keeping in touch but quite hard work, time consuming, and required access to a network and to power.

I opened an email account specially for the walk ( which I used to check correspondence from sponsors and others. I got between 10 and 20 emails a day and replied to every one of them. I also replied to all the posts on my FaceBook page.

To supplement all this, every Sunday evening I wrote a summary email of the last week’s events which I sent out to all my sponsors. People seemed to appreciate this, and I got positive feedback, as it was easier for some people than looking at my website every night.

All in all I sent out 14 of these updates (one on the day I started walking, eleven at the end of each of the 11 full weeks I was walking, one on the day I finished, and one six months later).  In case you’re interested in reading them, they are all available for download by clicking the appropriate button below:

00 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 11a 99

All this worked fine, although it did require time and effort. But possibly the most useful thing I did beyond this, was to turn on the “Buddy Beacon” feature of my “ViewRanger” mapping app.

This handy function is built into the app on my iPad and forces the app to send a small data packet, every 2 minutes, to the Internet. The packet contained my latest GPS location, date and time stamp, and direction and speed of travel. Obviously this only worked when I was in (O2) mobile phone or wifi coverage range but I did find it would send the data packets ok even if there was only gprs coverage. The data packets are quite small (about 10kb each) so there wasn’t risk of clocking up a huge bill.

Buddy Beacon login screen
Logging on to track me via buddy beacon – only accessible if you have the right userID and PIN (click this picture to get to the ViewRanger login screen on-line)

The Buddy Beacon data is displayed on a map which is accessible with a user ID and PIN from any internet browser. I gave my sponsors the login details so they could track me in real-time.   I know a lot of people were following because on more than one occasion, I got text messages from people who were worried that I looked like I was heading in the wrong direction, or wondering why I had stopped for so long outside a building that looked suspiciously like a pub…

The Buddy Beacon was a great reassurance to me, especially when I was walking alone in remote areas. At one point, in such a location, a stopped for a few minutes for a break and almost immediately got a worried text from a friend in China, who was tracking me from 6,000 miles away, and who was wondering if I was ok, as I had been motionless for longer than normal. So when the beacon stopped working in particularly remote spots, for example near Dundonnell and Knockdamph – it was doubly worrying as I was in remote, harsh territory, and nobody knew exactly where I was.

Buddy beacon screenshot
Viewing my progress in real-time: Screenshot of the auto-updating “Buddy Beacon” screen . Each red blob was sent every two minutes as I walked, and anyone anywhere in the world with a web browser and my PIN could log in and follow me

Considering how much reliance I was placing on technology, it all worked pretty well. The only major mishap occurred when I was midway between Bridgwater and Street. Over the previous few days, my iPhone had been running out of battery more and more quickly but on this day, it went dead and refused to come back to life even when I tried to charge it from my Lithium battery. Luckily I was able to get onto the web by using my iPad from a BT wifi hotspot near a house, and after a bit of surfing, I discovered there was a mobile phone repair shop in Street, about nine miles ahead – but a few miles off my planned direct route to Glastonbury. So I made the detour, found the shop (which was open because luckily it wasn’t a weekend or holiday) which diagnosed that the phone was “boot looping”. They managed to fix it by replacing by both the battery and connector (which it turned out was also broken). And it was all done for under £30.

Street Cellular to the rescue! A lucky find after my iPhone started boot looping.

So everything worked out ok but I considered myself exceptionally lucky that I was able to get to a repair shop relatively easily without too much disruption. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, I might have done things differently. In particular, I think I would have taken a spare second hand iphone which I could have swapped if my main device failed. If I’d got one which operated on a different network, it would have also given me wifi hotspot access more reliably than the 3G USB sticks I’d carried and which turned out on the day to be of limited practical value.