MQTT, OwnTracks, and location tracking

I want a passive location tracker on my phone, something to tell me where I’ve been over the span of years. Google Timeline + Android does this pretty nicely and this blog also has previous notes on Fog of War and other gamified apps. I was using OpenPaths on my iPhone to do something similar, but it was abandoned. The backing server is already gone and the app will die with iOS 11.

So what to do? A friend suggested OwnTracks, an iOS tracker. This isn’t civilian software; there’s no public service. The docs are all about running your own custom server to collect your location data. But the iOS tracker is capable. In particular you can choose battery vs. accuracy. You can either record your position every N seconds / every M meters, which takes about 10% of your battery an hour. Or you can use a more passive “significant movement” mode that is less sensitive but uses very little battery, maybe 1% an hour. I think that’s what OpenPaths did; I ran it for years without a problem. (There’s also a newer iOS API for “Visits” that also looks useful).

OwnTracks publishes data via MQTT, a message queue protocol designed for Internet of Things apps. It seems awfully complicated and a bit fusty, but if they’ve thought through reliable, low power connections for limited devices I’m glad to use it. The OwnTracks docs have some info on running your own MQTT server but that seemed complicated, so I’ve started with CloudMQTT which has a nice free level.

I created a CloudMQTT account and then just plugged in the Instance Info username/password into OwnTracks and set it to logging. CloudMQTT has a “Websocket UI” that shows you the message stream to verify the plumbing is working. OwnTracks reports look like this:


So that all works. Now what about capturing that data for myself? After some false starts I ended up at paho-mqtt, a Python client. The example client on that page more or less works, except you have to modify the on_connect() function to take a fourth flags parameter. (That’s a hint this code is musty.) The example connects to some public MQTT endpoint with a bunch of events flying by so you know it worked. Eventually one sent non-UTF8 and broke the Python code, but at least it was working.

Last step was to reconfigure the sample client to connect to my CloudMQTT instance. To get that working I had to create a new user and set it up with the ACL controls. (Wildcard access, read/write). For some reason the main user/login didn’t work; maybe because it was in use by OwnTracks? I also had to call client.subscribe() to get messages on my specific OwnTracks topic; not sure if that is supposed to be necessary.

Cloud MQTT also has support for forwarding events to Amazon Kinesis. I set this up hoping it was an easy way to get at the data but it just adds complexity and another system for me right now. There’s probably some way to feed the data into a database with AWS plumbing that might be nice. And it’ll scale!

Things to learn more about with MQTT:

  • Is MQTT a living tech, or is it abandoned?
  • CloudMQTT user management
  • paho.mqtt: naked TCP vs TLS vs Websockets
  • MQTT topics and subscriptions
  • Is Amazon Kinesis interesting for my application? Would be nice to have less code + servers to manage


One thought on “MQTT, OwnTracks, and location tracking

  1. funny timing. i’ve had google’s location tracking on for years, on an isolated account, but never actually used it for anything. (agreed that timeline is a great product!…but still.)

    so yesterday i downloaded the data and turned it off. diff’rent strokes, i guess. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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