Yesterday evening I negotiated the cold and snow that is once more upon us to join the OpenStreetMap Foundation board, who are having a board meeting in a hotel at Schiphol Airport, of all places, for an evening of drinks in a bar in Amsterdam. It was very good seeing them again; I’ve worked closely with most of the current board members organizing State Of The Map 2009 and had not seen them since. Good times chatting about Jetsons-like hotel rooms, living in Kenya, and Social Location, which brings me to the topic of this post.
Well into the evening, a group of hipsters enters the bar and occupies a table near ours. Then, a social novelty unfolds that is on the verge of being uncanny to observe. Instead of starting to socialize, they all take out their phones and spend the first five minutes of their night out staring at their tiny screens, the blueish light emitting from their devices accentuating the utter concentration on the hipsters’ faces. They are momentarily out of touch with the simple, three dimensional world we are physically sharing and have ascended into the universe of Social Location – updating their FourSquare, Gowalla, BrightKite and Flook accounts.
Social Location. The hipsters are ‘checking in’. Letting their friends, and everyone else who might be interested, know where they are. ‘I am at IKEA’. ‘I am at Top Gear Live‘ – I don’t have to look very hard in my twitter stream to stumble upon a check-in of sorts. It is a Very Popular Thing to be doing – even Kevin Rose is onto it now – to the extent even that 2009 was dubbed ‘The Year Of Social Location‘ on an influential GIS blog. Why Social Location is taking off the way it is, amidst a new wave of heated discussion about privacy in social networking, is a question for another day, but the fact is that it has become all the rage, with a flurry of new platforms and apps like Google Latitude, Gowalla, Foursquare and Flook, joining the ranks of already established ones like Brightkite and Dopplr.
Some of these Social Location platforms are designed to just simply post you location as a geographic coordinate for other apps to do useful things with, like Yahoo! Fire Eagle and Google Latitude. Others add another layer of fun and functionality on top of that. Brightkite, Gowalla, Flook and Foursquare use your location to search a database of bars, museums, shops and other public places. Instead of posting a nondescript set of coordinates, you can share a meaningful location. I Am At IKEA! To provide some legitimacy to this concept, some platforms add a competitive element, awarding badges or medals for accomplishments (four bars in one evening earns you a ‘Bender’ badge on Foursquare, for example) and ‘mayorship’ for a venue’s most frequent checkers-inners. Foursquare even goes so far as making your Social Location status count in the real world: The Mayor drinks for free.
Another interesting element of the Social Location platforms is its crowdsourcing possibilities. Building on the concept of social review platforms like Yelp – who recently updated their mobile app introducing a check-in option of their own – Social Location platforms can be employed to discover and share interesting locations with other users. Most platforms already allow simple adding of new places, and let you share comments, tips and observations for other users to enjoy.
The question of where all this information is stored arises. We see a wide diversity of platforms, all with their own user base – which is, judging by the hipsters’ time spent staring at their phone screens, probably showing a significant overlap – and their own strengths and weaknesses. Some form of consolidation would be in the interest of us, as users of these apps. Not only would we get to spend more time actually socializing, but we would also benefit from more crowdsourcing power.
I’m thinking there should be an open location platform. The actual locations should go into OpenStreetMap, which would be the central repository for Locations. A Unique Location Identifier will link them to their Yelp, FourSquare, Gowalla, and other location profiles. Comprehensive location information could then be aggregated by any application by pulling the information form any of those platforms using the shared Open Location Identifier.
EDIT Just posted a follow-up article in which I dig into the concept of an Open Location Platform.