In The Midst Of A Massively Successful SXSW, Foursquare Tackles Venue Harmonization

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In the location space, there’s something that has long been the missing link: a unified places database. The problem, of course, is that all the major players, Foursquare, Facebook, Google, Gowalla, Loopt, etc, have their own databases. But today Foursquare is taking the first steps towards unification — well, if the others play along.

Foursquare is launching an initiative that they’re calling the “Venues Project” or “venue harmonization coordination”. Their aim is to create the “social places database,” as co-founder Dennis Crowley calls it. “Some folks have taken a stab at this, but we think we can do it the right way,” he says.

To kick things off, Foursquare is rolling out a new set of APIs and removing restrictions on their venue APIs that they previously had in place. “Like every other API, we had pretty strict rate-limiting. We’ve removed a lot of those,” Crowley notes.

And with the new APIs, Foursquare is announcing four initial partners: The New York Times, New York Magazine, Thrillist, and MenuPages. What the partnerships mean is that when a third-party makes an API call, they’ll get the IDs for all the aforementioned partners that are working with Foursquare on this. For example, a call can return a Foursquare venue and the MenuPages information for it.

You’ll notice that none of the initial partners are other location services themselves. “It’s something that we’re going to start reaching out for after this [initial push],” Crowley says.

But for those who do play along, won’t this still just be Foursquare owning this places database? “We don’t want to own the data,” Crowley matter-of-factly says. He notes that they have about 14 million location data points, and they’ve all been crowdsourced. The only thing Foursquare is interested in storing is the ID linkups so they can match places and data. “It’s like the Rosetta Stone,” Crowley says.

Of course, it’s hard to see the two biggest players, Facebook and Google, playing along. Both have their own places databases that are tied to other services each is working on. I’m sure we’ll hear in the coming days that both are “open” to the idea, but then we’ll see no action that actually shows that.

On the other hand, Foursquare competitors like Gowalla may be open to this. The last major update to their app started linking together Gowalla places with Foursquare places and Facebook places. They’ve been doing this work on their own behind the scenes.

Long story short, this is a step in the right direction towards a more unified places database, but time will tell how meaningful it is. Regardless, if Foursquare keeps adding more of these partnerships, it will make their APIs even more attractive to developers.

Crowley notes that when they first started Foursquare in 2009, no one had a good set of data to use so they had to go it alone. But now that they have all of this data and they have the APIs that a ton of developers are using, they’re think they need to take steps forward. “This is what people want. It’s coming from their feedback,” Crowley says.

As for how this year’s SXSW is going so far, “the numbers are amazing,” Crowley says. “We normally do about 2 million check-ins a day — now we’re at 2.6 million,” he notes. “Yesterday was our biggest sign up day ever,” he continues, noting that they’re also very stable and for once, their employees aren’t stressing out during the conference.

You can read more about the new initiative and APIs on Foursquare’s blog.