When location is everywhere

What if you could take location as a given in the design of web applications and services? By that I mean, what if — when someone who has never used your service before shows up, signs up (ideally with an OpenID!) — and it’s both trivial and desirable for her to provide you with access to some aspect of her physical location in the world… and she does? What would you do? How would you change the architecture of your service to leverage this new “layer” of information?

Would you use it to help her connect to and find others in her proximity (or maybe avoid them)? Would you use it to better target ads at her (as Facebook does)? Would you use it to accelerate serendipity, colliding random people who, for some reason, have strikingly similar habits but don’t yet know each other — or would you only reveal the information in aggregate, to better give members a sense for where people on the service come from, spend their time and hang out? If you could, would you automatically geocode everything that new members upload or post to your service or would you require that metadata to be added or exposed explicitly?

Put still another way, how would a universal “location layer for the social web” change the design and implementation of existing applications? Would it give rise to a class of applications that take advantage of and thrive on knowing where their members live, work and play, and tailor their services accordingly? Or would all services eventually make use of location information? Or will it depend on each service’s unique offering and membership, and why people signed up in the first place? Just because you can integrate with Twitter or Facebook, must you? If the “location layer” were made available, must you take advantage of it? What criteria or metrics would you use to decide?

I would contend that these are all questions that anyone with a modern web service is going to need to start dealing with sooner than later. It’s not really a matter of whether or not members will ever show up with some digital footprint of where they are, where they’ve been or where they’re going; it’s really only a matter of time. When they do, will you be ready to respond to this information or will you carry on like Friendster in the prime of Facebook and pretend like the first bubble never popped?

If you imagine for a minute that the ubiquity of wireless-enabled laptops gave rise to the desire-slash-ability for more productive mobile work, and consequently created the opportunity for the coworking community to blossom; if you consider that the ubiquity of digital cameras and camera phones created the opening for a service like Flickr (et al) to take off; if you consider that the affordability of camcorders, accessibility of video on digital cameras, cell phones and built-in in laptops and iMacs, coupled with simpler tools like iMovie, lead to people being able and wanting to post videos to a service like YouTube (et al); if you look at how the ubiquity of some kind of device technology with [media] output lead to the rise of services/communities that were optimized for that same media, you might start to realize that a huge opportunity is coming for locative devices that make it easy to publish where you are, discover where your friends are, and to generally receive benefits from being able to inform third parties, in a facile way, where you are, where you’ve been and where you’re going.

Especially with the opening of the iPhone with its simple and elegant implementation of the “Locate Me” feature in Google Maps (which has already made its way into Twinkle, a native Twitter app for the iPhone that uses your location to introduce you to nearby Twitterers who are also using the app) I think we’re on the brink of seeing the kind of the ubiquity (in the consumer space) that we need in order to start taking the availability of location information for granted, and, that, like standards-compliant browsers, it could (or should) really inform the way that we build out the social fabric of web applications from thence forward.

The real difference coming that I want to point out here is that 1) location information, like digital photos and videos before it, will become increasingly available and accessible to regular people, in many forms; that 2) people will become increasingly aware that they can use this information to their advantage should they choose to and may, if given the chance, provide this information to third-party services; 3) that when this information is applied to social applications (i.e. where location is exposed at varying levels of publicity), interesting, and perhaps compelling, results may emerge; and that 4) in general, investing in location as an “information layer” or filter within new or existing applications makes increasingly more sense, as more location information is coming available, is being made available by choice, and is appearing in increasing numbers of applications that previously may not have taken physical location into consideration.

Geogeeks can claim credit for presaging this day for some time, but only now does it seems like the reality is nearly upon us. Will the ubiquity of location data, like the adoption of web standards before, catalyze entirely new breeds of applications and web services? It’s anyone’s guess when exactly this reality will come to pass, but I believe that now, increasingly, it’s really only a short matter of time before location is indeed everywhere, a new building block on which new and exciting services and functionality can be stacked.

(Bonus: Everyware by Adam Greenfield is good reading on this general topic, though not necessarily as it relates to web services and applications.)

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

19 thoughts on “When location is everywhere”

  1. Chris,

    You’ve beautifully articulated the significant role location enablement continues to play in the evolution of the web. I share your obvious passion for location based services and hope that we see more online social services factor location awareness in their core offering and APIs.

    Contextualising content and engaging in conversations based upon location is not new but given it is increasingly essential to filtering out the growing noise of online communities and building more relevant personal networks, it’s amazing that social networking sites haven’t better leveraged this layer sooner.

    Thanks for the insights.

  2. A compelling read. You wonderfully describe this frontier geogeeks are trying to map.

    There are three aspects I would add to your thoughts on location. Even when the location layer becomes ubiquitous, we’ll still have to think in terms of specificity, frequency, and context. Different methods of updating and privacy settings can mean location as specific as GPS or as general as a zip code, which may or may not be useful depending on the consuming service. We’re constantly moving, so frequency of updates determine the social usefulness of location data. Also, if location sharing becomes more ubiquitous and automated, it will probably be in the form of GPS or cell tower information along the lines of the iPhone’s “Locate Me” feature. This is great for certain kinds of location sharing, but horrible for contextual information like “in conference room A” or “Ted’s pub.” Mapping GPS->venue will be a big deal.

    This leads me to my worries about the location layer.

    I foresee applications that allow users to tag their GPS locations with venue data, but store that data in a closed way so that the company owning the app can claim it as IP.
    I really want to see the location layer implemented correctly before we go too crazy with services. That will require more thought and lots of openness+standards. We need more apps like Fire Eagle that take privacy seriously and offer users robust control of their data. If companies like Facebook try to claim your location history is their property the way they claim your contact list is their property…well, I don’t even need to explain how bad that would be for everyone.

  3. Hi Chris :

    Very nice post and I like the fact that you discussed the location layer. I also applaud Yahoo’s Brickhouse initiative: FireEagle. This is a good start in removing the burden of location-based application developer; gathering location information and associating privacy levels to it. Then we can focus more of our energy on the added-value of each application.

    Look at BrightKite for example. However I wish they would read from FireEagle instead on only writing to it.

    Happy location reporting – Martin

  4. Nice post – we do need to be thinking about this now. As emerging services like BrightKite start talking to more widespread networks like Facebook, they’ll be defining the terms of how web apps will deal with knowing or not knowing our locations.

    I wrote something on a similar line last week, looking at location as an aspect of identity, and as part of the issues surrounding identity portability: http://corvusconsulting.ca/articles/2008/04/30/wherever-you-go-there-you-are-thoughts-on-identity-and-location

  5. …speaking of location based awareness. Here’s Tom Coates running ( very quickly ) through FireEagle:

    I found value in this video since he talks about apps I was unaware of that are already using FE and he outlines his wish list for what he would like to see people do with it.

    Excellent post Chris. And I woul add that once Android is pervasive, and Google enables AdSense inside it, use of the location layer with increase rapidly. Commerce has to have an fiscal incentive – AdSense ads contextually relevant down to the meter is it.

  6. Chris,

    Great article, as always.

    I would add that “location” is going to be closely linked with the evolution of “identity”, meaning the proliferation of multiple identities (pro – leisure – perso etc.) as these identities will have different degrees of “visibility” attached to them which is going to make things particularly complex to manage both on the user side and the application side.

    This is starting to become a real “oignon”…

    Andrew 😉

  7. Nice post, thanks. I’ve been coding GIS and spatial db systems since the mid-80s.
    The techniques of geolocation have been well known since well before the web (think Loran and terrain modelling), so it’s surprising that more apps aren’t using it even still.

    One common method of doing geolocation does really constitute a universal ‘location-awareness’ layer as you put it: web apps can easily query an incoming IP for approximate coordinates, and do ‘ip delivery’ to enhance the user experience.

    There’s an interesting divide, though, between apps where the location information is really useful and those where it’s merely an added interest. Take news, for example – there are several sites which scout up hyper-local news and blog posts, but they dont seem to be gaining lots of traction: I might not be interested to read about the pothole repair 2 blocks away, all that hyper-local focus can end up introducing noise, as news needs to be filtered by interest primarily.

    Our site gruvr.com maps local concerts – it guesses where you are. This is more useful because live music is opportunistic – the question of just how far away a concert is does matter, since you’re trying to decide whether to actually GO there.

    Regarding why geolocation hasnt been more widely adopted – There actually is a factor that those of us who are into geo-web apps know: you pay a severe penalty in terms of google SEO if you do geolocation.
    Why? Because most google spiders geo-identify as a user from Sunnyvale or Mountain View CA!

    Thus, the google and adsense spiders think your site is all about the San Franciso scene, and serve those local ads… even to people in Boston! Google can also penalize sites it thinks are doing cloaking, which is hard to tell from honest IP-delivery.

    The end result is that such apps actually get penalized for improving user experience.
    This is a sad state of affairs, an artifact of the text-based architecture of google’s search technology. It’s limiting a lot of what can be done on the web, simply because google wasn’t designed with knowledge of how geolocating apps often work.

    It’s still a flat world, folks.

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