‘Location’ is where it’s at – my take on location-based services.

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).

Location-based content

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:

  1. marketing executives understand the potential of knowing when and where people are, and
  2. 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.

Privacy issues

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?!).

9 Responses

  1. It seems that my post coincided with the topic being quite ‘hot’ (mainly because of Facebook’s rumored arrival on the ‘geo-location’ scene).

    Mashable today posted a very similar blog post to mine (although I beat them by 5-6 hours!), “Why Hasn’t Location Reached the Mainstream Yet?”:


  2. Ok, this is beginning to get a little weird!

    After the Mashable article, which closely resembled a number of topics that I raised in my blog post, I’ve now found an article about new Apple patents, including one related to location-based services …

    “According to some implementations, once location information for the mobile device is identified, content associated with the location of the iPhone could be identified by a server that receives the location information from the iPhone. […] The location mapping service could include one or more databases that include one or more location/content tables […] that correlate geographical locations to content to identify content, if any, that should be transmitted to the iPhone […] while the iPhone is at or near a particular location identified by the location information.

    For instance, the location/content tables could identify that content, such as text, images, and the like, associated with a national park should be transmitted to mobile devices that are located within the geographical area of the park or within a 1/4 mile from the center of the park.”

    All very similar to my suggestions about online access in airport lounges, and menus and inflight magazines being sent to you when you are at certain locations …

    You can read more here:


  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SocialMediaStrategy. SocialMediaStrategy said: 'Location' is where it's at – my take on location-based services … http://bit.ly/cQhe2f #locationbased […]

  4. Matt, as discussed already, here are some of my thoughts…well in fact these are more like some historical inputs.
    LBS – as location based services – used to be abreviated in the telco industry are in fact an “old” thing. Looking back at my days with CSC, EPlus already tried to setup LBS for the CeBit in (i believe) 2000 but it was canceled on short notice.
    A friend of mine – Dr. Stefan Figge – even wrote an award winning article in 2001 on this topic. Still, he did not refer to location based services but rather context specific content. In doing so, he applied a much broader perspective on the whole thing. He acknowledged, that you may come to the same location with differente purposes (e.g. you could be in the restaurant during daytime in which case shopping possibilities and location based marketing may be attractive to you. You may also come to the same restaurant in the evening in which case the nearest bar, concert or club would be of interest). Some of this notion can be found here: http://www.safari-institut.de/fileadmin/Download/MOBIMOD02.pdf

    Nevertheless, in 2001/2002 EPlus took another chance at bringing the web online by the European implementation of the Japanese iMode. Looking back, iMode is not much different to what users use on their Blackberrys, iPhones, Androids, etc. You were able to subscribe to content of well know magazines and newspapers, download pictures and ringtones etc.
    Yet, there are some fndamental differences. In essence, LBS and the whole mobile web thing is subject to network effects, i.e. the more people use a specific application or function, the more benefit is created by using it.
    Look at yourself, are you not more likely to go to an unknown restaurant that is rated good by many people instead of just one user?
    iMode was subject to only a small user group as it was limited (potentially) to the whole of EPlus’ users, being one of the smaller German networks. In addition, iMode could only be used on NEC handsets which were neither considered to be European state of the art nor were technically advanced.
    In essence, I consider these factors to have contributed to the mediocre success of any mobile/location based web. Not mentioning prohibitively high pricing for data rates, of course 🙂
    Nowadays, you have a host of different handsets to chose from. Access to any application is not bound to a specific network, prices came tumbling down and last not least: people are used to social networking platforms (despite any privacy issues as mentioned by you).

    In my opinion, LBS now have a fair chance to be adopted IF the killer purpose is found as you correctly stated. Applications such as Foursquare, Gowalla, etc. are good fun but not really value adding in a deeper sense.
    I happend to find the biggest purpose in these applications when traveling and not being familiar with the city I’m in. There information such as “next ATM”, “best rated restaurant close by” etc. is really helpful.
    Therefore, I’ll be one of these users that eventually in the medium term gets board by Foursquare et. al (in particular as the Nokia implementation lags behind Android’s, Apple’s and RIM’s implementation). Still, with applications such as qype radar where you have a tight integration between the website and the mobile front-end, I’m more likely to stick with for a longer term.

    • Thanks Joerg. Interesting points. I think the Network conflicts and critical mass issues might be partly overcome by APIs and better integration between the websites (and if Facebook enters the Fray, they might immediately have the necessary size to make it work).

      It will be interesting to see if someone tries to acquire Foursquare or Gowalla and invest heavily in it (the same sort of intention when Google bought YouTube, or when eBay bought Skype, neither of which are, however, great examples of the subsequent investment – Google is perhaps starting to get somewhere with YouTube, but both Skype and YouTube haven’t reached their actual potential, or at least, their originally perceived potential).

  5. I really like this post by Robert Scoble, “The “like, er, lie” economy”:


    He talks about how we use social networks like Foursquare to project an image of ourselves that we want others to see (not necessarily the real person) – for example, one might check-in at a smart, hip cafe, but not check-in when one visits McDonalds (even though both were actually visited).

    An important conclusion of all that is that data captured by Foursquare might be inaccurate, and of limited use to, say, marketeers. Robert then talks about ways to deal with this – more rewards to overcome our ‘shame’ factor, or automatic (involuntary) check-ins (Robert is very much in the ‘open up privacy’ camp!).

    My take on Robert’s post:

    The issues are however not limited to Foursquare, but consistent with all social networking sites (at least for the ‘smarter’ people who do actually think before uploading a status update or other data), and even the way we personally (in real-life) interact with each other.

    There is also however a possible ‘silver’ lining. If people are thinking “I don’t want people to know that I ate a fatty burger, but would rather they thought I ate a healthy salad” maybe this will lead to a greater self-awareness (“hey, I was about to eat a fatty burger – urrghh!”) and possibly lead to change (“hey, maybe I should be eating the healthy salad instead …”).

  6. Mike Elgan has an interesting article on why location base services will hit the mainstream:


  7. Location based services are a very powerful tool. For me, I just needed a simple application to help me with reminders.

    I had been searching for an iPhone application for location based reminders that works without using GPS (which dramatically reduces battery life). I ended up developing my own application to do just this. LocationMinder on the iTunes App Store allows you to set simple location based reminders. The location can be set by searching for a business, by address, or manually on a map. This reminder is then delivered the next time you are near that area. The advantage is that it uses a new technology only in the iPhone 4 that continuously monitors your location without the high power of GPS. The application also does not need to be running to receive the reminder. I would love some feedback on the application. You can find it here at this link-


  8. […] these apps have a location-based service element to their approach (see also my earlier post ‘Location’ is where it’s at – my take on location-based services‘), it will be really interesting to see if they result in more physical real-life social […]

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