geo, geomob, mobile, Web 2.0

GeoMob, 12 May 2011

A good level of participation for yesterday night GeoMob. Despite two speakers’ defections we had a well balanced schedule (one big company, one researcher, one startup) and a rich Q&A session. Here’s my usual summary with some thoughts embedded.

Microsoft Bing Maps, by Vikas Arora (@vikasar), Solution Sales Specialist
General show-case talk as we often have from big companies. However, some interesting products seem to be coming out of the Microsoft pipeline, especially StreetSlide and the partially related Photosynth. Some awesome novelty (although not immediately usable) like the amazing live Augmented Reality video stream on a static image view. I’m not totally sure the GeoMob crowd is the right one to show AR ;-)

There was some good debating about updating StreetSlide imagery, thanks to a question by Ollie. This is a well known problem in Google StreetView, especially in busy London High Streets where shops sometimes change hands multiple times in a year. As a result, by the time StreetView imagery has reached Google’s servers it displays a vintage version of reality. Vikas claims that by partnering with Navteq they will be able to update images every 4-6 months.

Vikas earns the best quote of the night award: “I can’t say much about Nokia except that it’s good for us”.

Mapping Surnames Geographically, by James Cheshire (@spatialanalysis), UCL Geography
I was absolutely fascinated by James’ work upon discovering it on the National Geographic Magazine some months ago. The general subject of this talk is showing how surname origins and popularity can be displayed on a map. Two works were presented about surnames in the US and in London.

The talk and the Q&A session highlighted both the power of a map to show surnames but also its limitations. There are obvious problems of visualization: short and long surnames being displayed in different size, choice of colours, positioning, density, granularity.

Although the map itself is a beautiful item, I think that its dynamic version, able to show the nth most popular surname,┬áis more useful, but only if used… dynamically. What I mean is that in places that are true melting pots like London what it’s interesting is not what surname or surnames are the most popular, but rather what’s the distribution of names of a certain origin in a given place. In other words, given the assumption that certain surnames can be related to certain communities, it’s interesting to see that the first five most popular in a given area are sometimes from five different origins.

James was open about the issues of visualising surnames this way, especially about how to treat granularity (e.g. the Irish community in New York is not as big as it would be). There is lot of work to do in this area and a map is only the tip of the iceberg of research, development, coding, and imagination.

Introducing Eeve, by Jan Senderek (@jansenderek)
Impressive UI analysis for this young start-up whose goal is to let people have fun creating and sharing events. Jan, their CEO, delivered a very interesting talk about how UI can lead to a great mobile application. Their strategy of “mobile first, then web” is interestingly different by that of many other startups around. Event creation and sharing seems to have a mind-boggling peculiarity: initially, events will need to be created in the place where they will be held and shared immediately. No forward planning allowed, which sounds strange but might capture the fantasy of party goers. They plan to extend the service to let event organisers create entries.

The (long) Q&A session seemed critical but was truly interested. First of all, turning myself into the bad guy, I asked what makes them different from their competitors. I’ve attended GeoMob since 2009 and this is at least the third company introducing a similar service, and their unique selling point is not extremely clear. Surely, UI seems to be really good for their app, but is that enough to get to that critical mass of users needed to succeed?

Secondly, the business model seemed not very well defined. Although as any stealth startup Eeve wouldn’t probably disclose too much about it, the general perception was that they need to think about it a bit more accurately, and Jan admitted that.

However, I also have the general impression that small companies presenting at GeoMob (not just Eeve) tend to come just with their shiny iPhone application rather than with the backstage work which might be of great interest. This also gives the wrong impression that most of them are trying to monetise upon nothing more than a mobile app. As it turns out, one of the other LBS introducing at GeoMob a similar event-based app was also selling a CRM system to event organisers which is where their main revenue stream comes from. None of this was mentioned at the presentation and we were left wondering with the same questions.

I won’t mention all the discussions about stalking and privacy: we’ve done that for all companies providing LBS, so nothing new from that perspective. But it’s always good to have our @StevenFeldman pointing that problem out.

To be honest, I’m curious about Eeve and will probably try it out (paying attention to privacy, of course :P). It would be nice to have a report on how many users join the system and especially their B2B strategy.
Maybe for a next GeoMob?

geo, geomob

The several issues of geo development: a chronicle of October’s GeoMob

GeoMob has returned after a longer-than-usual hiatus due to other – and definitely very interesting – commitments of our previous Mr GeoMob, Christopher Osborne. It was a very interesting night with the usual format of four presentations covering aspects of research, development and business. Here’s my summary and comments.

Max Howell, @mxclTweetdeck

I’m a bit unsure on how to comment the involvement of TweetDeck into the GeoSocial business.
Max’s presentation has been focused on the integration of their application with FourSquare. It’s a tightly coupled integration allowing users to follow their Twitter friends using the locative power of Foursquare, i.e. putting them on a map. Max gave out some bread for our brains when commenting that “Google Latitude is not good for us because it gives out location continuously, whereas we are looking for discrete placement of users on POIs“: this is a real example of why more-is-not-necessarily-better and, in my opinion, the main reason for which, to date, Latitude has been less successful in catalysing users’ attention on locative services.

However, I’m not totally sure why TweetDeck foresees its future into becoming a platform to integrate Twitter and FourSquare into a single framework. “Other apps put FourSquare functions in a separate window and this is distasteful“. Is it really? And how exactly will TweetDeck benefit, financially but not only, from this integration? “We spent a lot of time on FourSquare integration but unfortunately it’s not much used“. They should ask themselves why.
Their TODO list includes Geofencing which might be interesting so let’s wait and see.

Matthew Watkins, @mazwat Chromaroma by Mudlark

For those of you who don’t know it yet: Chromaroma is a locative game based on your Oyster card touch-ins and touch-outs. They’re still in closed alpha, but the (not so many?) lucky users (I’ve asked to join the alpha 3-4 times, but they never replied) can connect their Oyster account to the game and take part to some kind of Gowalla for transport, based on the number of journeys, station visited, personal and team targets.

Two things to be considered:
open data and privacy: upon joining the service, the user account page is scraped for their journeys. Matthew explained they approached TfL to ask for APIs/free access to the journeys data but “due to budget cuts we’re low priority“. Apparently they’ve been allowed to keep on doing scraping. The obvious issue is a matter of trust: why should someone give their oyster account access to a company that, technically, hasn’t signed any agreement with TfL?
This is worrying, as to get journey history data you need to activate Auto Top-up. So you’re basically allowing a third party to access an account connected to automatic payments from your payment card.
Secondly, I can’t understand TfL’s strategy on open data here: if they are not worried about the use Mudlark is doing of such data, why not providing developers with an API to query the very same data? Users’ consent can be embedded in the API, so I’m a bit worried that Chromaroma is actually exposing the lack of strategy by TfL, rather than their availability to work together with developers. I hope I’m wrong.
monetising: I’m not scared of asking the very same question to any company working on this. What is Mudlark’s monetisation strategy and the business viability of such strategy? It can’t be simply “let’s build travel profiles of participating users and sell them to advertisers” as TfL would have done that already. And if TfL haven’t thought about this, or if they’re letting Mudlark collect such data without even letting them adhere to some basic T&C, we are in serious trouble. However, it’s the declared strategy by Mudlark that does not convince me. Matthew suggests it might be based on target like “get from Warren Street to Kings Cross by 10 am, show your touch-ins and get a free coffee” or on the idea of “sponsor items” you can buy. Does this strategy have a market that is big enough? And, as I’ve already asked, why should a company pay for this kind of advertisement that is potentially available for free? If the game is successful, however, it will be chaos in the Tube – and I’m really looking forward to it :-)

Oliver O’Brien, @oobrUCL CASA Researcher

Oliver has recently had his 15 minutes of glory thanks to some amazing live map visualisation of London Barclays Cycle Hire availability. He went further to develop visualisation pages for different bicycle hire schemes all around the world – before he received a Cease&Desist request by one of the companies involved. As a researcher, he provided interesting insight to the GeoMob showing some geo-demographic analysis. For example, weekdays vs weekend usage patterns are different according to the area of the world involved. London is very weekdays-centric, showing that the bicycles are mainly used by commuters. I wonder if this analysis can provide also commercial insight as much as Chromaroma’s intended use of Oyster data.

Thumbs up for the itoworld-esque animation visualizing bike usage in the last 48 hours – stressing that properly done geo-infographic can be extremely useful for problem analysis. Oliver’s future work seems targeted at this, and ideally we’ll hear more about travel patterns and how they affect the usability of bicycle hire schemes. I can’t really understand why he was asked to take some of the maps down.

Eugene Tsyrklevich, @tsyrklevichParkopedia

The main lesson of this presentation: stalk your iPhone app users, find them on the web, question them and make them change the negative reviews.
An aggressive strategy that can probably work – and I would actually describe Parkopedia’s strategy as positively aggressive. They managed to get a deal with AA about branding their parking-space-finding-app in exchange for a share of profit.
Eugene’s presentation was more about business management than development. Nonetheless it was incredibly full of insight. Especially on how to be successful when marketing an iPhone application. “Working with known brands gives you credibility, and it opens doors“. The main door that this opened was actually Apple’s interest in featuring their app on the AppStore, leading to an almost immediate 30-fold increase in sales. This leads to further credibility and good sales: “Being featured gets you some momentum you never lose“. This is a good lesson for all our aspiring geo-developers.

geo, geomob, mobile, Web 2.0

A bunch of nerds with maps

…I think I can define GeoMob this way and I fit this definition perfectly :-)

Nice London Geo/Mobile Developers Meetup Group meeting yesterday at City University. High level of the talks, providing vision, reporting experiences, and showing technologies and nice uses of them. Here’s a short summary.

Andrew Eland – Mobile Team Lead for Google UK

A very Google-like talk, showing up tech pieces with their vision. Of course, disappointing if you were expecting more in-depth analysis of market, novel ideas, or anything more than current publicly known work. But we’re used to that, and it was not a bad talk at all :-)
Best quote: “Tokyo is a vertical city“. That’s absolutely true, and this fact has a direct impact on geo-apps: being shops, clubs, bars, developed vertically at different levels of the buildings (this is a pic I took of the Keio Sky Garden, for example, and there are hundreds of beer gardens up on the roofs of several skyscrapers!) there’s a real need for accurate altitude information and 3d-mapping, or at least altitude-enabled maps. The interesting question for me here is how we can show multi-floor information on the 2d-maps currently in use.

Julianne Pearce, Blast Theory
An artists’ collective perspective on geo-development. Absolutely intriguing, as not the average techietalk you would expect from a GeoMob. I found this personally interesting, as I played with the Can you see me know? game and even created a modified version of it at the UbiComp Spring School at Mixed Reality Lab, University of Nottingham in April 2009, during a workshop dealing with Locative Game Authoring.

They introduced their concept of a web 2.0 site for creating a personal atlas. Basically it’s about putting photographs and commercial activities of interest on a personal map. They seem to be developing APIs and the possibility of creating widgets, and directly deal with small companies (hotels, b&b, restaurants, bars) to put them in their database. The idea here is that users will be allowed to tell the (possibly intelligent) system what categories of data they’re mostly interested in, leading to some kind of customised Michelin guide.
On monetization, they have a three-fold strategy:
– contextual advertisement, empowered by the fact that users are genuinely interested in what they put in their atlas
– share of profit on direct bookings
– [long-term] user base providing more content, improving quantity and quality of contextual data in a positive feedback loop, possibly making it interesting to other companies

Laurence Penney, SnapMap
My favourite talk of the night. Laurence has been longing for a way of placing precisely photographs on a map for more than 10 years.
I was astonished of seeing him doing many of the things I would have liked to see in web sites like Flickr and that I’ve been discussing for ages with my friends and colleagues! Using gps data, a compass, waypoints, directions, focal length, and all the other data associated with a photograph, Laurence is developing a web site to allow users navigate those pictures, even creating 3d views of them like the guys at University of Washington with Rome wasn’t built in a day. Funnily, he started all of these before gps/compass-enabled devices were available, writing down all of his data on a notebook, and he even had problems with the police inquiring why he was taking picture at the Parliament (unfortunately, I have to say he’s not alone -_-).

Mikel Maron – Haiti Earthquake OpenStreetMap Response
Mikel explained what OpenStreetMap did to help in Haiti. Disaster response relies heavily on updated maps of building, streets, and resources, and OSM quickly managed to get that done. A great thanks to him and to all of OSM guys to show the world that mapping can be helpful to people even leaving out profit considerations.

geo, geomob, mobile, Web 2.0

At the #GeoMob

Hey folks, long time I haven’t blogged – been very busy at work and home! Let me resume my techie stuff by summarising some of my thoughts after the #GeoMob night at the British Computer Society, last 30 July.
The #GeoMob is the London Geo/Mobile Developers Meetup Group, and it organises meeting of developers interested in the geo/social/mobile field, usually with participation from industry leaders (Yahoo!/Google), businesses, startups.

This are my thoughts about the night, grouped by talk:

Wes Biggs, CTO Adfonic

  • AdFonic is a mobile advertisement provider that launched 1/7/09 (their home page doesn’t work, though. You need to go to
  • what about user interaction and privacy? if I don’t get it completely wrong (reading here it seems I haven’t), the actual user experience is to have some kind of advertisement bar on your mobile application. If it’s just this, it’s simply the porting of an old desktop idea to the mobile environment. The problem is that it was not a hugely successful idea. Here the user is rewarded even less compared to the desktop bars (I guess by getting the app for free?). I’m not sure this can be a really successful venture unless the ads are smartly disguised as “useful information” – but, hey, I’m here to be refuted :P
  • getting contextual information is difficult, even if you know the location of the user you don’t know what he/she’s doing. Good motto from the talk “advertisers are not interested in where you are, but in where you’re at“. But how to get and use these contextual information was not really clear from the talk. From their website’s FAQ, I read:
    • You can target by country or region.
    • You can target by mobile operator.
    • You can define the days of the week and the time of day you wish your ad to be displayed in the local market.
    • You can choose to target by demographics by selecting gender and age range profiles.
    • You can choose devices by platform, brand, features and individual models.
    • You can also choose to assign descriptive words for your campaign using tags. We compare these tags to sites and apps in the Adfonic network where your ad could be displayed, improving your ad’s probability of being shown on a contextually relevant site.

    This raises a couple of privacy concerns, as well as technical ones ;-)

  • I would say this talk raised more questions than those answered – nonetheless it was, at least for me, good for brainstorming about mobile targeting
  • some of the issues with this service – which I’m really interested in watching to know where it heads to – are interestingly the same of a paper about leisure mobile recommender systems that I reviewed for MobBlog

Henry Erskine Crum, @henryec, Co-founder of Spoonfed

  • Spoonfed is a London based web startup (Sep. 2008) that focuses on location-based event listings
  • 12 people work there – which makes it interestingly big to be a startup
  • very similar to an old idea of mine (geo-events but in a more social networking fashion) – which prompts me to realize I need to act fast, when I have such ideas :-)
  • I would have liked the talk to dig deeper into details about user base, mobile apps and HCI issues, but it was not a bad talk and it provided a very operational and yet open minded view of how the service works and evolves
  • oh, and Henry was congratulated as the only guy in a suit (:P lolcredits to Christopher Osborne)

Gary Gale, @vicchi, Director of Engineering at Yahoo! Geo Technologies, with a talk about Yahoo! Placemaker

  • get here the slides for this talk
  • Yahoo! Placemaker is a useful service to extract location data from virtually any document – also known as Geoparsing. As the website says: Provided with free-form text, the service identifies places mentioned in text, disambiguates those places, and returns unique identifiers for each, as well as information about how many times the place was found in the text, and where in the text it was found.
  • I see it very interesting especially as it is usable with Tweets and blog posts, and it can help creating very interesting mashups
  • only issue: its granularity is up to the neighbourhood – which is perfectly good for some applications, but I’m not sure it is also for real-time-location-intensive mobile apps

Steve Coast, @SteveC, founder of OpenStreetMap and CloudMade, with a talk about Ubiquitous GeoContext

  • OpenStreetMap can be somewhat considered the community response to Google Maps: free maps, community-created and maintained, freely usable – CloudMade being a company focusing on using map data to let developers go geo
  • the motto from this talk is “map, please get me to the next penguin in this zoo” – that is, extreme geolocation and contextual information
  • success of a geo app – but according to me also applicable to many Internet startups – summarized in 3 points:
    • low cost to start
    • no licensing problems
    • openness / community driven effort
  • it was an absolute delight to listen to this talk, as it was fun but also rich of content – the highly visual presentation was extremely cool, I hope Steve is going to put it online!

Oh, and many thanks to Christopher Osborne, @osbornec, for organising an amazing night!