geo, Web 2.0

The past (and future?) of location

I must say – without making it too emotional – that I feel somewhat attached to geo-events at the BCS as my first contact with the London geo-crowd was there over a year ago, with a GeoMob including a talk by the same Gary Gale who gave a talk last night. That was, at least for him, one company and one whole¬† continent ago – for the rest of us the “agos” include new or matured geo-technologies: Foursquare, Gowalla, Latitude, Facebook and Twitter places, plus our very own London based Rummble, and minus some near-casualties (FireEagle).

Some highlights/thoughts from his talk:

The sad story of early and big players
– early players are not always winners: this can happen in a spectacular way (Dodgeball) or more quietly (Orkut has not technically been a commercial success, for example) – but also
– big players are not always winners: it’s all just a little bit of history repeating, isn’it? Remember the software revolution? The giant IBM didn’t understand it, and a small and agile company called Microsoft became the de-facto monopolist. OS/2 is still remembered as one of the epic fails in software. Remember the Internet revolution? The giant Microsoft had its very own epic fail called Microsoft Network. It took them ages to create a search engine, and in the meantime an agile and young company with a Big G became the search giant. Some years later, the aforementioned Orkut, started by Google as a side project, didn’t have the agility and the motivation to resist to Facebook. The same might happen about location services.

Power to the people
The problem with big players is that they take the quality of data bases for granted. Foursquare et al. found a way to motivate users to keep the POI database constantly updated by using a form of psychological reward. Something that Google hasn’t quite done.

Now monetize, please
Ok, we can motivate users by assigning mayorship and medals. Having a frequently refreshed database is a step ahead. But how do you make money out of it? “Let’s get in touch with the companies and ask for a share of the profit” can work for some brave early adopters. But it will not take long for companies to realize they can use the data – for free – to make business analysis without even contacting foursquare. “Become mayor and get a 10% discount”. What other data analysis should motivate them to pay for it? Knowing where a customer goes next? Where they’ve been before? Maybe to get higher profile in the searches, like in google searches? In the ocean of possibilities, the certainty is that there isn’t yet an idea that works well. “Even Facebook lacks the time to contact the big players to negotiate discounts“. And if you think about the small players it’s even more difficult (but if Monmouth offers me a free espresso I’ll work hard to become their Mayor!).
The way many companies are trying to sell it is still pretty much old economy: sell the check-ins database to a big marketing company, blablabla. Cfr. next point.

Dig out the meaningful data
Ok, we have motivated the users to keep our POIs fresh. But they want to be mayor, so they exploit APIs. Their favourite bar has already a Mayor? They create another instance of the same place. They create their own home. I’ve seen a “my bed”. Is there an algorithmic way to filter out the meaningless data? Surely not in the general case. Moreover, as Gary stressed, simply “selling your database starts eroding its value“. Because the buyer needs to find a use for that mountain of data. As for now, such use is not evident, because most of the data is not meaningful at all.

“If Augmented Reality is Layar, I’m disappointed”
Some time ago I noticed a strange absence of overlap among the geo-crowd and the AR-crowd. The latter presents ideas that have been discussed for years by the former as a “revolution”. One problem is that maybe we have augmented reality but not a realistic augmentation, mostly because of reduced processing power on mobile devices. Ideally you would like to walk down the broadway, see a SuperMario-like green mushroom that gives you an extra shot of espresso (to me it’s like getting an extra-life), catch it, and claim the coffee in the shop around the corner. Unfortunately, GPS is not accurate enough (Galileo might solve this problem soon) and walking down all the time pointing your phone camera to the road will only drain your battery (and probably get you killed before you manage to catch the mushroom). It’s not just an issue of processing power and battery life, though. Even with that, there’s a serious user interaction issue. AR glasses might, partially, solve that, but I can’t really believe that augmenting reality is *just* that and not something that empowers a user’s imagination. Geo-AR is on the boundary between novelty (“oh look, it correctly puts a label on St Paul’s cathedral!“) and utility. And currently on the wrong side of it.

The director’s cut will (not) include recommendations
I’m sure we’ll make it to the director’s cut” – Alex Housley complained in the typical flamboyant way of the Rummble crowd about being left out of the presentation. “We believe trust networks are the future“. Yes and no. I agree with Alex in the sense that how to provide appropriate recommendations is an interesting research problem (but also here)¬† and the key to monetization of any service. It’s technically not the future, though: Amazon has been using recommendations for years, and I’ve done purchases myself prompted by their recommendations. Trust networks have been extensively used in services like Netflix. What Rummble is trying to do is a more direct way of exploiting trust networks to enrich recommendations, bringing them to the heart of the application. I’m sure that recommendations will play a role in monetizing the geo-thing and that even trust networks may, too. What I’m not sure about is if recommendations will be as they’re now. Without a revolution in the way users perceive local recommendation – that is, a user interaction revolution – they’re not gonna make it. Users need a seamless way of specifying the trust network, and a similarly seamless way of receiving the recommendation.