almost 11 years on 2008-03-01


in summary: google’s “my location” function is awesome from a consumer standpoint. lbs has been a longtime in the making, and though gps is more accurate, this application will get way wider distribution fast and (way more interestingly) will make it easy for google to develop, command, and monetize an enormously valuable dataset on people’s location (appended to all the other information they have on you) without the carriers or other partners to get in the way. issues are in what happens when the information goes social (which it inevitably will), how do you feel about places you visit defining you/the advertising offers you get (at a bare minimum)...

i started playing with an early consumer gps unit in 1995 (which i begged for as a bar-mitzvah gift) and have been involved with several startups over the last few years that are doing amazing stuff with geo-location. so, when google released the new feature “my location” that sits on top of google maps for mobile (in my case blackberry) i was psyched to play with it, but didn’t expect to be that surprised by it or really that interested…

for those of you that missed it, the “my location” function uses the cell tower triangulation method to get a read on your current location without fussing with gps. techcrunch and the privacy digest has some good coverage. if you don’t feel like reading them, the basic point is now when you pull up google maps for mobile on your blackberry there is a little blinking blue dot – that dot is you. further, there is a little blue arrow, that blue arrow is google’s best shot at figuring out what direction you are traveling in (doesn’t quite work that well yet).

the reason that geo-location is so interesting is that it is an enormously rich data source which can be passively collected. if social networks are all the rage right now because they can collect an enormous amount of theoretically useful data for almost nothing (by convincing users to actively generate it for them), geo-location could theoretically be even more powerful in that the data might be richer (especially when appended to other sources) and users passively generate the data all the time.

as a consumer, the “my location” app is awesome:

it is totally totally amazing – i love it – in nyc it works well, and it does a relatively good job of getting your location right within a block or two – it actually really helped popping out of a subway in the village, not because it got my location exactly right, but because when i hit “0” to zoom to my ‘current location’ (which was off by a bit) it automatically pulled up the map of the surrounding area. no more punching addresses into the program to zoom to the map around my location.

traveling to vail from denver a few days ago it was even better. the system was telling me that in denver it was accurate within 3 meters (and i don’t think it was lying) i wanted to make a stop at a bar called the ‘cherry cricket’ for a burger before heading to vail – i now can just follow the blue dot. mind you, this isn’t a fully integrated turn-by-turn system, but it doesn’t really need to be. you just use the directions feature to pop up the route you want to take and then you can see when turns are about to come up, or how to get back on course if you make a mistake via the friendly blue dot. my only complaint at all is that i had to transfer between google local search and google maps to get the specific addresses i wanted to go to… i am sure google is going to fix that one for us soon (they need to, especially because on blackberry browsers the cursor skips over local listing addresses to the phone numbers, making it impossible to copy/paste between apps).

geo location is nothing new, geo location with a google backend…another story:

of course, there are tons of gps units on the market that can do some of this stuff. generally i have found the systems that i have used, especially car based ones, have terrible interfaces for entering your trip, and often fall out of date with their location information (both of which are issues that google maps does not face)…

but the really interesting part about this little integration is that it is my cell phone (so it is always always on me) as opposed to a separate device, and even more importantly it is google, and therefore linked back to my google logon identity. what does this mean? it means it is possible for google to now collect a stream of my true location information (and they probably already are).

personally, i could see use for/think it would be really cool if google would present that information back to me online in the form of a daily log of where i spent time, especially if they rolled it up so that i could see statistics like, you spent 5000 hours in midtown manhattan in the last year. not hyper functional, but as a guy obsessed with statistics, something i would find engaging.

google has its eyes on a much bigger prize i am sure… try this on for size, google knows that last week i went to erw airport in nj and popped out in dia. it will shortly know that i will then be heading to sfo and back to erw. let’s say, just for laughs, that i happen to have a business around increasingly highly targeted advertising… maybe someone would want to offer travelers who go to denver and sf a targeted promotion? what if instead of commercial airports, google tracked my out of teterborough and into eagle… google (or advertisers on google’s platform) could back out that i just took a private jet across the country, maybe a champagne ad would be more appropriate.

what about interpersonal data… wanta know who is dating, just see whose cellphones are hanging out together the most. wanta suggest people who should be dating, see whose geo-location maps are overlapping through the same places and back out what interests they share (skiing, rock climbing, or clubbing). who is cheating? that is easy. who are friends – why ask people to declare their friendship when you can watch them meet in physical space. try this one on for size, wanta know how long people are sleeping every night – cell triangulation might give you a rough estimate.

and the list of fun stuff goes on and on… watching how people’s locational behavior intersects (especially if you already have an inkling of who knows who from perhaps your email logs) could be a critical element of ‘qualifying’ the nature of relationships, much as facebook is trying to do by deliberately asking you how you know someone or what they mean to you, except this can be all done passively.

i am glossing over a whole bunch of technical challenges to crunching the meaning out of location data here (which i only partially understand anyway), and i am also over-stating the level of granularity you can currently get on location, but the big point is a very very big point. i trust that google, unlike passive gps systems and even some companies which are experimenting with feeding back location information, gets the big picture here, and has the engineering might to crunch through these issues.

this is all before we start to append all the other information google has on me – emails, calendars, search terms – it is amazing what they are amassing. i dearly love facebook, they have one of the greatest personal databases ever amassed and it is only going to get better as they follow you around the web, but google may be entering a whole other league, especially now that they can follow you offline into physical space.

what concerns me is this:

location will become a parameter of ‘social’ information which one is compelled to share widely

once this information is being collected there is going to be a strong tendency to make it ‘social’ or public – this means appended to your social networking identity, emails, whatever. there are big benefits to this, figure out who is running late for a meeting, who is around for a movie, where that child is that you misplaced, where that cool party is that your friends wouldn’t invite you to… but this has relatively profound impacts on the ability to not be found, and there also could evolve a strong stigma against turning off the software. just as though blackberries have made it more and more socially unacceptable to not answer email on the fly, you could imagine people getting really upset when their friends, spouse, child, decides that for the next few hours they don’t want to be pinpointed. this is something that people have been talking about regarding dodgeball (which google bought), socialight, etc… it is nothing hyper new, but again, with google’s hyper-lightweight solution to geo-location – especially one wrapped into the massively useful and popular maps for mobile, this is going to happen sooner rather than later. your location has always been very much a private sphere parameter, email, blackberries, cellphones, etc have actually made it easier to keep your location truly private, but this app is going to push location in the opposite direction, making it more transparent to those around you. it is bad enough when your boss wants to ‘friend’ you on facebook, what about when your location is appended to your profile… and what if it becomes socially unacceptable to say no, so i feel the need for a service to spoof your location and activity to others…

even if location doesn’t become social, do you want your location history to be part of your carried forward identity? or do you even want to be categorized as someone who is frequently turning off the service?

forget the social angle, the geo-information which google et al will collect through your cell will end up being used to serve more targeted ads. every time you go to a strip club, or the mall, or vegas, you are going to get a tick in your column for ads that are relevant…and you are going to get served those ads. let’s pretend that you just turn the device off all the time, that is going to be a variable also – you are going to get grouped with ‘people who tend to turn off their device’ – maybe that will mean you will start getting more adult friendfider ads?

even on a basic level, do you want to be discriminating/making offers to people based on where they hang out?

hang out in aspen, posh nyc districts, maybe spent 20 days on martha’s vineyard last year – you are going to get some premium offers… your eyeballs are going to be worth a ton. spend a lot of time in less nice places (not going to risk listing anything in this blank), you are not going to get as many nice offers. you might be thinking to yourself that you will either benefit or loose from a system like this, but your location stream is going to become part of your identity, part of how you are filtered through technology and on into society. this is disturbing, this may limit social mobility, this is going to require some serious re-evaluation…

generally speaking, the issue is this - what happens when the fact that you will be tracked and evaluated based on your location is added to the social equation of where to vacation, party, work, generally go? do you start going out every night just so that google, thereby advertisers, or friends, etc. think you are 'cool', do you hire someone to just carry your phone around in their pocket to trendy places? basically, what type of feedback loop is formed whereby the act of being monitored impacts actual social behavior?

in conclusion, part of my personal laws of information collection and proliferation…

the government is not blind to this stuff – there is plenty of banter about legislation/how data can be collected and used, etc – but i don’t think it will be effective, legislation simply cannot keep up with the pace of technical innovation nor can it override the enormous amount of money which is up for grabs in getting personalized geo-location histories right. for what it is worth i strongly believe:

1. information that can be collected will be collected
2. once information is collected it will be used
3. once information is used it generally becomes social and or widely syndicated
4. once information is social and or widely syndicated it is impossible to stop collecting

so, the equation on the enormous utility i get out of goolge knowing my location may be worth probing/evaluating on a longer term basis...


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