Geolocation, Foursquare and usability

Okay let’s get this out of the way: the two technologies that I think are going to mature in 2010 are geolocation and augmented reality.  And yes, geolocation is really a subset of augmented reality anyway. There now: I’m done with predictions.

What I actually want to focus on with this blog post are the issues surrounding the social geolocation service, foursquare.com, and what needs to happen before the service really becomes useful.  I’m on foursquare, and I think I’ve checked in about twice.  It’s not that I don’t like the idea of the application.  I completely understand the value in identifying your location (particularly if the update also is accessible on twitter), as people who know you might then be able to look out for you and meet up for a coffee.  There’s also the added advantage of getting TO DO information about any location you might check-in from, entered by other enterprising foursquare users, so you have the opportunity to maximise the value of your presence at any physical location.  Makes perfect sense.

But the issues of using foursquare are clear: your presence is inherently trackable if you checkin wherever you are.  Well, yes, that’s the point of foursquare.  But is this always desirable?  Over and above the obvious personal privacy stuff, I want to go through some of the reasons why checking in on foursquare may not be desirable.

Commercial confidentiality: As a consultant I’m frequently having meetings with clients for pitches and confidential projects, and locating myself on foursquare at the physical address of these businesses may in fact be deemed as disclosing information about my client work that I was not permitted to disclose.  It’s a long shot, but it’s possible.

Personal security: Again another long shot, but if you’re in any way vulnerable to stalking or assault, disclosing your location all the time can be problematic.  There are some odd folks out there.  And as a single woman in London I try to be cautious about what I disclose, in order to be sensible about my own personal safety.

Property security and insurance: This is pretty obvious; when you disclose where you are and your home property is necessarily vacant, you signal to potential burglars to ‘come on in’.  But as unpleasant as that is, it’s not actually the worst of it.  There are clear signs in the insurance sector that such a disclosure would void any insurance on property at your residence if you are robbed.  This is tricky because it’s already commonplace for people to blog and tweet about where they are, but as insurance claims rise for property theft, agencies will begin to crack down on claimants who disclose their location on publicly accessible forums.  And the use of GPS to confirm location is possibly more difficult to defend than mere description as there is always the chance the blogger or twitterer is lying about their location, or is participating remotely at an event, etc.

Fortunately all these issues can be resolved.  But the technology has to be altered slightly for this to be the case, and user practice also needs to be moderated.

At the moment every time you check in with foursquare, the default setting is for your position to be publicly displayed to all your friends.  That’s kind of the point.  But the issue is that your ‘friends’ include everyone that you approve as a connection on foursquare.  Right now I have a list of about 15 people who have requested to be a friend of mine on foursquare.  But if I don’t recognise their names or userpics I have just ignored the request.  That’s not what everyone does.  Many just approve anyone who requests a friendship link, and thus the default setting of updating a location to all one’s friends in fact broadcasts that information to everyone they have approved.

The trouble is there are ‘friends’ and then there are friends.  In fact, you probably are happy about disclosing your location to people you would actually count as a friend (or at least a trustworthy contact), but not to others whom you may have met once, or may know through someone else.  Foursquare needs to allow its users to group friends so that some, but not all friends are aware of where a user is when they are checking in.  And users need to be a little careful about with whom they connect.  Just because you met someone once at a conference somewhere doesn’t mean they are trustworthy and ought to know every place you go.

Finally, there is the issue with foursquare and usability.  At the moment, the technology is decidedly clunky.  If you access the service via a phone browser (through http://m.foursquare.com/) you have to manually type in your location and select all options before you can actually check in.  There’s no option to triangulate your postion via the web interface. If you use an application to access foursquare it’s only efficient if you have GPS on your phone.  Triangulation again isn’t an option.  Of course the technology is evolving and it will continue to improve but it’s probably going to take till the end of 2010 before foursquare is usable and secure enough for it to be of interest for mass adoption.

And even then, there are limitations on the corporate value to be derived from social geolocation.  I think in another post I may go through what I see as the corporate potential from social geolocational services.  But essentially, I think it’s going to take something a bit more sophisticated than foursquare to really capture the value of the technology.

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