In the retail trade they’ve long said that it’s about location, location, location. The advent of GPS, and the incorporation of GPS into affordable, handheld units (starting with car navigation units, and more recently smartphones) has meant that location tracking is now possible for individuals.
It has recently also become possible to share, or publicly broadcasting this data, via Twitter, Facebook, or other internet based platforms, with friends, or indeed, the whole world. It is of course a fair question to ask why one would want to do this.
I’ve recently started to try out Foursquare, one of the most popular location-based services, in an attempt to better understand what it’s all about. In doing so, I’ve also come up with a few thoughts about the potential for such services, beyond what seems to be being done so far.
Location based services
So far location-based services (or geo-location services), as they tend to be known, such as Foursquare or Gowalla (the “big two”, but others exist also), appear largely to have grown in popularity based on the principle “if you can, do it” rather than clearly defining the benefits. It is certainly impressive technology (triangulation from mobile telecoms towers, or satellite signals). But what actually do they offer?
A few examples:
- social media interaction – friends can share details of where they ‘hang out’, and provide short reviews, opinions, and tips for others to see
- games – people can win ‘points’ for checking in at certain places, unlocking ‘badges’ for achieving certain stages (eg, first to identify a new location, becoming the primary visitor of a location, etc.)
- status – becoming the primary visitor of a location (called being the ‘mayor’ of a location by Foursquare) gets you recognised by other people who might visit that location
These might not sound good enough reasons for most people to participate in location-based services (it seems that many people who try out location based services are initially excited, but become bored later on). Fair enough – I think I’d agree; in my view the most valuable element of the above, sharing comments on locations, can be done through other platforms without actually announcing your own location.
I do however see lots of, as-yet untapped, potential in location based services (in fact, so much that I am surprised that no-one has yet capitalized on it yet).
Below I set out some examples of where I could see location-based services developing in future (with benefits to users, as well as corporations – the prefect opportunity?!), some of which are beginning to be announced as potential ideas, but not yet in action:
Location-based advertising, marketing and loyalty schemes
Local services could advertising their existence, special offers, discounts (possibly time based, and even consumer targeted, thereby enabling market segmentation) – can you imagine the local hairdresser identifying that you are nearby, and are overdue for a haircut? Or the local supermarket offering you personally targeted coupons when you arrive?
Every vendor/location could set up a ‘loyalty scheme’ and reward their most frequent visitors (all monitored by the location-based service). The vendor would have an incredible level of detail around which to tailor their services to their customers needs, purchases, time of visits, etc. Other marketing opportunities might be to encourage customers to check-in at different stores/locations (eg, a free coffee upgrade when you check-it five coffee shops at different locations).
Imagine yourself in the airport lounge of your choice of airline, “checking in” (the term which is also used to identify your location with a location based service) and then being offered free access to premium content (eg, economist.com, FT.com, WSJ.com, etc.), restricted to the ‘zone’ of the airport lounge. This would be possible with location-based services. In some ways it’s no different to what lounges offer today (newspapers and magazines laid out on tables), but then that’s so old world – the future holds rich online media content, that is shareable, linked, always up-to date, scaleable, etc.
Restaurants could offer you menus, airlines could give you in-flight magazines, museums could offer audio tours and other media content to compliment your tour, sports stadiums could provide match programs, etc. etc.
Others (examples only)
- Games – There is still more potential for games to innovatively use location information, beyond what is currently being done by Foursquare, Gowalla, etc. One might imagine location-based check-in races, from one location to another (or would these be illegal, possibly encouraging “Cannonball Run” style events?!).
- Public rallies and demonstrations – one might ‘check-in’ to show support for the cause being highlighted.
- Art – People aggregating photos from check-ins at the same, or different locations, perhaps to create collages.
The blog ‘Zeitgeist and stuff’ mentions some interesting ideas currently in development (including marketing ideas by the Financial Times, and Jimmy Choo shoes) in its excellent post ‘Location, location, location‘. More details on the Jimmy Choo shoes idea can be found at “Jimmy Choo Foursquare Treasure Hunt” by Digital Buzz Blog (Digital Buzz have reported on several other ideas too). The author of the ‘Zeitgeist and stuff’ post, davidllewelynjones, also responded to my comment on his post, notifying me of the article “The Wall Street Journal finds a way to Foursquare with purpose“, by Econsultancy.
Robert Scoble (@scogleizer) also points out a number of other innovative “opportunities lost” in his blog post “Are location geeks at Where 2.0 off the path to real money?“.
A spin-off of location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla is the category of GPS tracking which allows parents to monitor the location of their children (eg, by the child being provided a GPS device, and the iPhone receiving updates as to the device’s location, and therefore the child’s).
Adoption of location based services
Many people are active on Facebook nowadays. Fewer on twitter (in some groups, mostly still ‘geeks’ or teenagers). Location-based services are at an even earlier stage of adoption (although that could all change soon, since Facebook is rumored to be considering implementing location-based updates – see the AdvertisingAge article “McDonald’s to Use Facebook’s Upcoming Location Feature“, from 6 May).
So far location-based services have been most popular with the geek community (as evidenced by the intensity of discussion at the most recent SXSW festival in Austin, Texas – for more on that, check out TechCrunch’s posts “Foursquare And Gowalla In A Dead Heat In The Location War” and “What Did The Location War Look Like At SXSW? Like This.“, including a great video ‘visualisation’ of location-based service check-ins in Austin, Texas during SXSW) – perhaps no surprise, given that this is the group that sees the future potential in “if you can, do it”.
As smartphone technology become more ubiquitous, more people will have access to location-based services. If Facebook does proceed to implement these services, that might also result in more people trying it out.
Rather than needing a killer app (which in principle already seems to exist), what location-based services seems to need, is a killer ‘purpose‘. That will come as:
- marketing executives understand the potential of knowing when and where people are, and
- the volume of people updating their locations achieves critical mass for new developers and existing developers to further invest in creative and innovation concepts based on location information.
As with all social media apps, one of the big questions is how privacy will be managed. Sharing data has clear benefits (set out elsewhere in this article) but also creates some concerns around privacy.
It would be easy to say that if you don’t like being open, then don’t engage in the service, but many of the social media apps either aren’t always:
- explicit (in a clear, understandable way) as to how privacy issues are managed, or
- explit how your information is used, how much is actually available to other people (and which other people: friends, friends of friends, everyone?), or
- restricted to adults who are presumed to be mature enough to form an assessment of any risks that they are taking on, and how they might manage them.
Frank Groeneveld, Barry Borsboom and Boy van Amstel have created a website called PleaseRobMe.com, a website that used Twitter’s search functionality to show location-based messages (and thereby highlighted risks of others publicly knowing your location), in the aim of raising awareness about the potential risks of location-awareness and over-sharing. Their website has since stopped its “service” (for legal reasons?!), but in any case, they claim their message has been made (and so it was – they received broad media recognition for their innovative website).
See also the articles “Over-sharing and Location Awareness” on cdt.org (the Center for Democracy and Technology, a US-based, non-profit public interest organization which claims to be “working to keep the Internet open, innovative, and free”) and “On Locational Privacy, and How to Avoid Losing it Forever” by Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a US-based, donor-funded nonprofit organization.
For those that like conspiracy theories, it might also be worth pointing out that so long as your mobile phone is turned on, your location is being held on various computers, triangulated by local mobile towers, so as to provide you with a reception. Are you ever fearful of who might access that data, or what might be done with it?!
Location-based services are still in their infancy. Geeks are enjoying playing with them, impressed by the technology, but soon they will hit the mainstream. It is possible that Facebook might be the initiator of this (I hope not, as I would personally like to see Foursquare, Gowalla or another start-up lead this segment, instead of continued domination by Facebook) – many predict that Facebook’s entry into this segment would blow away the competition, due to Facebook’s 400 million+ installed user base.
Nevertheless, adoption of these services won’t likely ever be universal. Some people will decide they don’t have time to engage in location-based services. Others will be scared off by privacy concerns. There will however be enough people who feel that the privacy issues/risks can be managed, and who want to enjoy the benefits, for location-based services to be a lucrative and exciting playfield, and therefore one that can’t be ignored.
And finally, where might location-based services go next? We might be able to expect:
- live, real-time updates – no check-in, but a stream of updates following our movement (would be fantastic use for scientists and architects wanting to understand the ‘flow’ of large groups of people through man-made structures over time), and
- potential to opt-in for automatic check-ins, as we pass certain locations (can you imagine ‘Minority Report‘ style personally targeted advertising?!).
Filed under: Internet & technology Tagged: | Center for Democracy and Technology, Digital Buzz, Econsultancy, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Facebook, Foursquare, Gowalla, location-based social networks, pleaserobme.com, privacy, SXSW, Twitter, Zeitgeist and stuff