[AI] Geolocation: Keeping track of your friends

Sanjay ilovecold at gmail.com
Fri Aug 27 04:07:55 EDT 2010

Able to pinpoint your location and relay it to other users, the latest wave
mobile social-networking apps add a new dimension to 'following' friends.
Daniel Ionescu has some privacy concerns

Whereas Facebook wants to know "What's on your mind?"  and Twitter asks
happening?", the burning question for the next wave of social-networking
is "Where are you?"

And services such as Foursquare, Gowalla, Brightkite and Loopt want you to
your smartphone to answer it.

With a GPS-enabled smartphone such as the Apple iPhone, Google Nexus One or
BlackBerry, you can let your friends know where you are, find places
by people you know or check in remotely at clubs, bars and restaurants.

How it works

Geolocation apps typically do two things: they report your location to other
users and they associate real-world places with your location.  Versions
run on mobile devices provide a richer experience than their desktop
counterparts, since the data that's relevant to you changes with your

Smartphones use a GPS chip to communicate with satellites and calculate your
exact position, which Google Maps et al can then pinpoint on a map.  When a
signal is unavailable, geolocation apps can use information from telecom
to work out your approximate position.  Some geolocation systems use a
combination of both technologies and, in some cases, local Wi-Fi networks
this arrangement is known as assisted GPS (A-GPS).

Provided the sky is fairly clear, the geolocation app on your phone can
ascertain your position reasonably accurately.  It's less accurate indoors
in built-up areas, however; for the time being you may have to select your
location manually.

The first wave of apps

Several startup companies offer geolocation services - and some, such as
Foursquare, reach hundreds of thousands of users.  Not only do these
let you share your location with your friends, but they also bring a social
gaming element to the table.

Foursquare ( 4sq.com) works with iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Palm
phones.  If there's no separate app for your smartphone, you can use the
Foursquare mobile site instead ( foursquare.com/mobile).  Foursquare refers
announcing your location - and thus telling your friends where they can find
- as 'checking in'.

You can check into cafes, bars, restaurants, parks, offices and pretty much
anywhere you like.  Once your friends know where you are, they can recommend
places for you to go or things for you to do and see nearby.  To keep it
the service gives you points for each check-in; in time you can also earn
various badges that track your progress towards Foursquare elitehood.

Even cooler, if the service recognises you as the 'mayor' of a location (by
virtue of your having visited that place more frequently than anyone else),
you're in for some freebies.  Foursquare has a list of places that offer
discounts and free drinks to their mayors, or to anyone who has registered a
certain number of check-ins at their site.  We've not found many, though.

Gowalla ( gowalla.com) also works with iPhone, Android, Palm (WebOS) and
BlackBerry (Bold, Curve and Storm) handsets.  It has a huge database of
locations recorded by users.  Participants can trade virtual items they
Gowalla has worked out several advertising partnerships that enable you to
exchange virtual goods for real-life versions.

Gowalla recently added a Trips feature (iPhone-only at the moment; Android
WebOS versions coming soon) that lets you recommend up to 20 locations to
Gowalla enthusiasts.  Your friends can then complete trips, such as city
or bar crawls.

Brightkite ( brightkite.com) works with iPhone, Android, Palm, Nokia and
BlackBerry.  This service lets you establish two kinds of social
fans (Twitter-like followers) and Facebook-like friends.  Aside from sharing
your location, you can post messages that friends or fans can respond to
with a
thumbs up or thumbs down.

Brightkite has sliding privacy controls that let you share individual posts
everyone or with friends only; you can also cross-post on Facebook, Flickr
Twitter.  Like Foursquare and Gowalla, Brightkite uses the check-in system
bars, clubs, museums and the like, and it locates you automatically.

Loopt ( loopt.com) combines geolocation with social networking.  It's
for the iPhone, BlackBerry, Android and other phones.  It invites you to
into locations and share what you're doing with Facebook and Twitter
friends, as
well as Loopt friends.

Loopt also provides an event directory called Pulse, where you can browse
various listings categories for things going on near you, and afterwards
ratings and tips.  Freebies and special offers are available too, indexed
nearby retailers.

Last year, Twitter introduced its own geolocation application programming
interface (API), which lets third-party developers incorporate the feature
their apps.  Many Twitter smartphone clients such as Twitterrific and
let you attach your current location to your tweets, and so do some of their
desktop counterparts.

Twitter has recently introduced the same feature on its site.  Using
from Twitter isn't as seamless as with services such as Foursquare or
Brightkite.  You have to opt into the feature, which currently works only
Mozilla's Firefox browser.  Twitter's service lacks check-in features and
no incentives when you share your location.  For now, the only way to view
location information attached to a tweet is via a Google Maps overlay; but
can use Twitter's advanced search mode to search for tweets from around a
certain location.

Facebook was expected to make geolocation features available to its
400-million-plus users as we went to press.  Given that more than 100
Facebook users update their status from a mobile phone, the service's
popularity is huge.

Google Buzz, launched in February, resides within Gmail and lets you share
status updates, images and videos with other Buzz users.  It's also
available on
Android phones, and on the iPhone via a web-based application.  The mobile
version lets you post (or dictate) real-time geotagged updates to your Buzz
that show up on a new version of Google's mobile maps.

The maps also show the location-sensitive updates of other Buzz users in the

Geolocation privacy

As many people have noted, sharing your location on social networks when you
leave home could put you at an increased level of risk of being burgled or
stalked.  But services are working hard to keep you safe.

Most geolocation apps let you set a certain level of privacy, but you can
be too wary of people with bad intentions who may be following your updates.
a first step toward protecting yourself, it's a good idea not to reveal your
home address on these services.

Privacy advocates have already gone to great lengths to raise awareness of
dangers of location sharing.  One example is PleaseRobMe.com.  The now
site aggregated tweets with location data attached to highlight the
of having thieves invade your home when you tweet a distant location.

Unfortunately, keeping your whereabouts hidden from other people defeats the
purpose of geolocation, so you have to make sensible decisions about how
you share your status and how carefully you guard your privacy settings.

Brightkite, for example, lets you select for each post whether to share it
with your friends or with the whole world; however, if you cross-post your
location on Twitter, any ill-intentioned follower could use that

Twitter's approach to geolocation, by contrast, lets you select whether to
include your whereabouts for individual messages.  Google Buzz does the same
thing.  Twitter also lets you delete your entire geolocation history, in
you later change your mind and want to erase your tracks.

Where's all this heading?

For now, geolocation apps are mainly the province of tech enthusiasts.  They
also seem to be mainly about fun: Gowalla and Foursquare wouldn't be nearly
popular without the gaming features they add.  But as geolocation technology
becomes more precise, it may become useful in more serious apps, such as
used by public safety and news-gathering professionals.

As more apps begin attaching our locations to our messages, related privacy
issues will be a hot topic of conversation, perhaps forcing us to re-examine
views about how much privacy we need to maintain in our digital lives.  As
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has suggested, privacy isn't what it used to
and many people may be willing to surrender some of their online privacy in
return for increasingly smart, convenient and enjoyable apps.

Technical telepathy: 09969636745
Saints are not always saints; sinners are not always sinners.

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