Guest post: Location-Based Services – it's game on!

This ia a guest post by Justin Davies, founder of NinetyTen, a UK-based consultancy providing mobile community and location aware solutions to companies. Davies also founded the now defunct BuddyPing, an early mobile social networking community based on the realtime location of users.

Not to sound too much like my grandad talking about the War, but when I was doing this, it was all about sending a text message to a person walking past Starbucks with a half price voucher.

Back in my day, we had to pay for location information, none of this “SimpleGeo” or “Google Latitude” malarkey you youngsters have these days.

The only phones that had a GPS chip was a prototype N95 I had to beg Nokia for, and some Blackberry phones.

Yes dear Location Based enthusiast, these are bright times, and this does finally seem to be the year of location (though, admittedly, this has been the case for the past 3 years).

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but location is big news at the moment. The location players are building solid relationships with big business and tapping into an enthusiastic, engaged and mobile user base.

Location is a an exciting, but tough space to thrive in. Location, and realtime location at that, is a rather large privacy issue which, when a service becomes popular, starts making people question just how sensitive their information is.

Early Adopters are notoriously OK with sharing information, they get the idea that when you post a photo on Facebook, it will be seen by everyone in your feed by default. Unfortunately, any argument to an end user that they can control that information using Lists aren’t really arguments after all.

The user was not educated by the service provider, and let’s face it, shoving privacy in everyone’s face all the time puts up a barrier to hip kids, because you sounds like their Dad.

(Source: The Next Web)

In the uTest report, one of the most obvious, and at the same time staggering things, is that privacy is so much bigger an issue than whether I am the Mayor of the Starbucks outside work. I don’t want my boss to know I am the person that spends the most time at the coffee shop and not at my desk.

Privacy will always be an issue with large, connected networks of people. Flattening the physical world into our laptops and phones will always cause problems because we forget who we are connected with.

Status updates by their very nature are 140 characters or so long, they are not built to have a huge amount of thought put into them, let alone who will eventually see or not see them.

If you throw location into the mix, then even the most innocuous location update, or historical patterns (Mayorships) can land you in warm water before you have realised it.

I’ve double booked drinks with a friend, and in my celebratory state after drinking with the preferred option, have managed to inform the world, and more importantly the person I kicked to the side that I was not in a very important, 5 hour meeting that has overrun, but was actually “lovin’ these mojitos right now!” with damning photographic evidence.

This is not to say that location services are doomed. Far from it, as more people are considered early adopters, they educate people on the benefits of open communication, and educate them on the merits of privacy as not only a mindset, but as a tool.

There will need to be better privacy controls within location based services for them to become truly mainstream. I want to share my location with my family when it is relevant for them to know, but I don’t want to have to think about what lists I should send my location to.

Back in the day, this was one conversation that I took part in over and over again about Location. We knew location was a key piece of information for someone to interact with the world, and it opened up a new way of discovering content that was more relevant. I could finally type Pizza in an LBS system, and it would tell me about things nearby (this was the demo I always used to give for location based search).

One thing that was missing from location we found was context. A simple idea of context in location is the “I am at Work”, “I am at Home” problem. If I searched for “Pizza” when in work mode, it’s probably because I want a work lunch with clients. If I did it when I was at home, I’d want to know about delivery pizza.

These different contexts would potentially help with who I would want to share a status update with, something I often think about getting round to figuring out with historical location information, along with times and keyword analysis of a location stream. Is there a way of understanding a user’s context based on information about them? Would this also be a privacy issue?

This is where Foursquare, Gowalla and new services like Pappd have changed the dynamic of sharing location, they have Game.

Adding Gameplay into location provides a safe mindset to share your location freely to a wider list of people because they are part of the same game.

The same goes for Flickr displaying the location of your photos. Your taking a photo of the location and sharing it with other people goes hand in hand. If I take a photo at a gig and share it, you can tell from the photo where I am. My location guard is down, and I feel comfortable people would know where I was. The fact I am sharing my view of the world right now visually has dampened my concerns about privacy, and the Gameplay Flickr uses is “upload better photos than other people”.

Utilising Gameplay does something else that helps the with sharing our location. It importantly helps me learn how other people’s location is shared with me. Understanding how other people’s location is shared with me, helps me understand intrinsically how much information is shared and seen by other people at me.

With every game, there is always a winner. With a very large amount of people playing the game, we have to democratise the winning. Remember, it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts!

With the bewildering success of couponing, vouchers and group buying recently, rewarding people for taking part is a logical way to give them something back for engaging with you and other users.

Foursquare has done something very interesting with this and managed to reward not only the users of the platform, but also the places they check in to. Providing Starbucks with information about who passes through their stores (anonymised of course!), and allowing them to analyse how often people checkin, view historical data, and also have the potential to reach those people on the move is something that those venues want. Badly.

The checkinee and checkiner both win in this situation, and this builds an ecosystem around the platform. It’s a smart move, because as both sides see more benefit from using Foursquare, they will dedicate more time to interacting with the community. This I would hazard a guess is why rumours of big players courting the founders over the past few weeks have come from. They are solving one of the biggest issues about monetising location and getting the big chains, and the little guys interacting with Foursquare’s userbase on a level playing field.

As a parting shot dear reader, if you are thinking about being the next Gowalla or Foursquare, think outside the box. The world is a very large, and spherical place, mapped by a long/lat address.

What about developing countries, where the penetration of mobile data usage far outstrips that of broadband, or even dial up modems?

99% of all location services I have seen are targeted squarely at Early Adopters. If you are looking for the next big thing in location, one that attracts people in the millions, look at the developing markets, because connecting people in disparate locations, and giving those people a way to share information is a great start.