Over the last year I’ve been playing with a number of location based services. I should explain my fascination, since it is even stranger than you think. Way back when I first encountered communications networks I was gripped by the way they enabled me to reach across geographies. Suddenly I could speak with people all around the world. This was in the days when international phone calls were the reserve of the few, and even speaking to people ‘all around the UK’ was prohibitively expensive. The Internet was a global thing, transcending governments and breaking down national boundaries – and all the challenges that came with that.
Skip forward three decades and things are evolving in a different direction. Services like Fire Eagle enable a number of applications to understand where you are, and Brightkite (in closed beta – email me for an invite), Dopplr and a swarm of others mean that you can ‘discover’ nearby friends/contacts or even total strangers. Other services like Flickr (best known for its photo sharing – although it now does video too) and even Twitter are location aware.
How does that help with productivity? The answer is: a lot. Dopplr can reduce travel by enabling you to identify fellow travelers, potentially sharing transport or eliminating trips all together. If I discover that Sharron, from the Paris office, is going to be in London this week that might save me a trip. Brightkite helps me quickly find a local Internet cafe or the hotel where friends are staying. At the other end of the spectrum, finding photos ahead of time on Flickr might save me getting lost, or change my holiday plans!
Many of these location based services are dependent on access to data on your current location, but constantly typing in where you are can become a drag. However, with more and more devices having built in GPS, reporting your location (we’ll come back to that) and tagging photographs and videos with geographic information is now a relatively simple task. Geo-tagging has become a major geek fad. It is still not as seemless as I’d like on my Nokia N95, but perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing. This week I signed up to Pachube (currently in beta), which is a service that enables a device to stream environmental data and share it globally. I was hoping to get some wind data for my home hacking activities, in preparation for homecamp this weekend. No joy so far, but it is still early days.
So, we have location based data behind location based services. Lots of data means an opportunity for lots of searching, an opportunity not lost on Google. If you use the latest version of the Google app for the iPhone (or iPod touch), it takes your location into account when it selects search results for you. Google searches have been location aware for a long time, but with more location aware devices, and the marketing fraternity on the case, it is going to a whole new level.
Google maps are an interesting way of discovering things. From a creating a ‘find us’ page with a pin in the map, to searching for local shops, Google’s map functionality has become almost as ubiquitous as their traditional web search engine. Putting your site onto Google Maps is relatively straight forward (give it a try).
Nice as all that is, that isn’t the most exciting thing about location based services. Back to those social networking services. Adding location into the mix provides the opportunity to rekindle local communities, connecting people in neighbourhoods, who might otherwise have never met. At this point, some of you might be perplexed. Meet people in the locality? Your either thinking “but everyone knows everyone anyway” or “but no-one talks to anyone”. There again, you might be comfortably in the middle of the two. It depends where in the country (and in which country) you live. Where I am, the commuter lifestyle and long working hours mean that much of the local sense of community has dwindled away. There is little engagement in local matters. A few brave souls attempt to keep a bit of a fire going, but it is a battle against apathy and that lack of time.
Cue location based services. From Facebook to Brightkite, from blogs to Twitter, local people are rediscovering each other. More than that, they are finding common causes. What is a community after all, if it isn’t a group of people centred about a common purpose? It was during a conversation with Tom Watson MP – Minister for Digital Engagement – last week that I realised the significance of these communities mapping on to geographical political infrastructures: influence. Just as the communities described in Cause Wired were able to organise on-line to create changes in the off-line world on an international level, local groups can affect the local level.
The space is not without its issues (see this post about post code data), with access to data and privacy being major concerns. However, the next few years will be about the Internet becoming an increasingly local phenomenon, rather than a global one. We have local community based blogs and websites, groups on social networking sites and local meet ups and that is all before the new wave of location aware devices are in broad use. We going hyper-local, and it may just be the most disruptive phase of the Internet yet.