Posts Tagged‘geolocation’

Places, Databases and Duplicative Efforts.

Over the past couple months I’ve taken upon myself to get more familiar with the broader world of technological startups, mostly because I’m always on the lookout for new APIs that I can aggregate into Geon. More recently however I’ve started to notice that there’s a big trend towards making any application location aware and there’s an increasing amount of social networking applications that use places and locations as their main selling point. The current hot thing appears to be apps that let you “check-in” at locations, say your local coffee shop or cinema, and give you rewards based on that. It fits in quite well with the formula I came up with for successful social networks (sense of belonging + wanting to share with community + competition element = win) so whilst I can’t see myself using the service I can understand why they’re becoming more popular. Of course with so many of the services starting to come out of the wood works some obvious duplication efforts become apparent, namely that they all roll their own location databases.

Now from both a business and technical point of view this makes quite a lot of sense. Whilst it’s nice to rely on other people’s services to provide you with data it also poses a risk, especially if that service is made available to you free of charge. Usually you’ll be on the rough end of the stick in terms of usage agreements and they’ll absolve themselves of any responsibility should the service go down. With bigger players though you can usually count on them being fairly reliable (I consider most Google services as 6 Sigma, for example) but when your core business relies on services provided by others you have to ensure that you have strict service level agreements with them or you put yourself at quite a large risk. Keeping the service internal, whilst increasing your own risk profile, at least grants you control so that any outages can be dealt with more effectively.

Still any engineer will see duplicative systems as wasteful if they’re not specifically being used for redundancy. The recent explosion in location aware applications hasn’t gone un-noticed and the duplicative efforts managed to catch the eye of one journalist:

Here is the problem: These efforts at creating an underlying database of places are duplicative, and any competitive advantage any single company gets from being more comprehensive than the rest will be short-lived at best. It is time for an open database of places which all companies and developers can both contribute to and borrow from.  But in order for such a database to be useful, the biggest and fastest-growing Geo companies need to contribute to it.

I put this suggestion to Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley the other night at a party, and he was enthusiastic about the idea. Foursquare is building up its own comprehensive database of places, which it calls “venues,” through its users who add places they want to check into, if they don’t already exist. Foursquare matches their GPS lat/long coordinates to its database of venues (businesses, points of interest, even people’s homes). Later I followed up by email and asked Crowley, “Isn’t the quality of your places directory, built by your users, a competitive advantage?

He makes a good point, it would be quite advantageous for many location aware applications (mine not so much) if there was an open database that contained a list of places worldwide. Whilst I’m not aware of a similar call for geolocation services (translating co-ordinates into names) the service GeoNames seems to embody the exact idea Schonfeld is talking about, albeit for a different kind of service. For anyone looking to use such services GeoNames provides a very quick way of integrating them into your project and if I hadn’t run into them earlier I may well have ended up spending a fair chunk of cash to get the same functionality (or signed my life away to Bing Map Services, which I’ve already done in part). Still the guys over GeoNames have been repeatedly bitten by those looking to make use of the service and I can’t help but feel the same thing would end up happening to those who would build the database of places. They’d provide a service we’d all love and enjoy, but they wouldn’t be getting a lot of tangible benefits as a result.

Schonfeld makes the point that any small advantage of a place database that has an edge over their competition doesn’t really give a company any advantage. To a point that’s true, since most of the legwork has already been done and it wouldn’t take a dedicated programmer more than a few weeks to replicate a similar database. Still anyone who goes ahead and makes this open database wears all the implementation and operational costs as well. They do gain a decent amount of power by being a central authority for something (which screams Google to me) but it will all come down to whether people co-operate or not. The trend towards an open web makes me think that they probably would, but it’s still a risk.

Right now I don’t envisage Geon actually requiring such a database, mostly because it’s focused on information + location and not so much if that happens to be from a bar or convention center. If such a thing would be implemented I’m sure I could augment the data stream with some place information to give the information a bit more context but it’s currently in the same bucket as the weather for a given location. It’s another cool thing to add on but the audience that I’m targeting probably won’t need it (and it will just add to the noise).

It’s really just a modern version of the tragedy of the commons and the solution is not much different than it was back then. I’m sure everyone would cry foul if the first such implementation came with a price tag for access but unless a large company wants to play the good patron to the rest of the world such central resources will be slow to come about, if ever. Any startup making use of such data hasn’t seemed to have any trouble coming up with their own dataset and it appears that will be the situation for a long time to come.

The Geo Giveth and the Geo Taketh Away.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of location based technology. There’s just so much information available to us out there that the use of filters has become a given and whilst the big players do a good job of providing the general filters based on topics the lack of location based filters is part of what inspired me to create Geon in the first place. This coincides with the explosion in ubiquitous GPS technology which was still out of the hands of your average consumer only a decade ago. Without these cheap and plentiful devices Geon simply couldn’t exist as the information streams would lack the data I require to provide accurate results (I try to avoid fudging data as much as I can, but for blogs and news there’s really no alternative right now). As I’ve said before I’m not the only one looking to capitalize on this, and I’ll be far from the last.

However despite the enormous benefits that such cheap and ubiquitous technology provides there is a flip side to this coin that I don’t often talk about: location based restrictions.

If you cast your mind back about 15 years you’ll find yourself in a world with a technology that was on the cusp of being released: the Digital Versatile(Video) Disk. Designed from the get go to be a replacement for the aging magnetic tape based format VHS it was something of a slow burning success as sales of the older format continued to outstrip it until 7 years later. Unbeknownst to most there was a sinister side to this new highly durable high definition format, the Region Code. At its heart the Region Code was a lock to prevent you from playing DVDs that you might have purchased elsewhere, giving the media houses precise control of what was released where and when with no exceptions.

At the time I was a salesman at the Australian chain electronics store Dick Smith Electronics. I can clearly remember the time when DVDs began to take off and for the most part it was all good. However as time went on we started to get people in with various DVDs brought by friends from overseas or otherwise that just wouldn’t play in their newly purchased player. Whilst for the most part we were able to circumvent these issues by up-selling them to region free players it didn’t stop the flood of complaints about why they couldn’t play something that they had legitimately purchased. At the time I didn’t care enough to find out the exact reasons but recently a resurgence in these region locking principles has started to send me over the edge.

Take for instance Hulu, a free video streaming service. As a service I think its a great idea since I could get the shows I want on demand and the content producers still get paid since they can slap ads onto the feed. Additionally there’s a whole swath of analytics you can run on such a service that just isn’t available on commercial TV (like how many people have actually watched the show, not just a rough guess). Plus every so often some great pieces of work will find their way onto Hulu such as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. If you dare click that link you’ll notice that it doesn’t go directly to Hulu itself and that’s for a good reason, the first comment there demonstrates my point exactly.

Hulu unfortunately isn’t available to anyone who is outside of the USA and they’ve taken quite an aggressive stance with making sure that people tricking their way into the service are locked out. Whilst the underlying technology might have changed (Geolocation vs Region Code) the rationale for doing so is the same. Right now the content providers overseas want to control the distribution of their media in order to create a kind of artificial scarcity. What this does is inflate the value of said content when they go to license it to other countries since they won’t be able to source it from anywhere else.

From a business point of view I, unfortunately, agree with them. They are merely trying to extract the largest amount of revenue possible from their investments and creating these scarcities on products is just one way for them to increase their bottom line. Additionally I can understand where the business model comes from as in the distant past such a scarcity was created by the mere fact that it took a long time to get media from one place to another. However this doesn’t excuse the fact that such a business model is becoming unviable and introducing artificial restrictions on products will only support them for so long.

Such behaviour is typical of the media companies as they’ve been dragged kicking and screaming through every technological revolution in the past 100 years. The good news is that despite their ranting and raving the barriers that they have put up in futile attempts to preserve their ancient business models are starting to come down with players like Apple (iTunes Store) pioneering the way. We’re probably still about 10 years away before big media rethinks their business model for the age of the Internet but at least, for now, there’s light at the end of this tunnel.

Presenting…..Geon! (and 100 posts!)

Well it may be late on a Sunday afternoon but here it is, my 100th blog post! It’s been quite a fun exercise for me and I’m hoping to bring you many more posts in the future. Hopefully they will all be interesting, but I can guarantee that ;). The past 7 months have seen many changes in both my personal and professional life and I feel that this blog has reflected that. I’ve been able to craft my thoughts much more succinctly after writing so much, and my spelling has definitely improved. It’s also introduced me to the wonderful world of web applications, something that I’ve kept away from in the past. All of this would be for nothing if it wasn’t for you, my readers. I just want to say thanks for coming back day after day and reading and commenting on my site, it really does mean a lot when people care about what you have to say :)

As promised I have been working on something secretly in the background, and today marks it’s 1.0 release to the public. It’s a hacky, cobbled together web application that will form the basis of a future application that I want to develop. For now I’ll be working on it under the code name Geon which stands for Geological Information, although the final product will be a lot more then that.

For a taste hop on over to here. Also available from the Geon link in The Lab. Click around, see what you think it’s supposed to do then come on back here. If you can write down your impressions of it before you read on, I want to see what everyone thinks about it before I mess your perception with my ideas :)

In essence the application is part of a framework for real time information feed based upon location. Right now it gets content from Twitter, Flickr and additionally everyone in the same city (roughly) can talk to each other. The Flickr and Twitter buttons will bring up markers at your location, whilst clicking directly on the map will bring up Flickr pictures and Twitter posts that are located within that area. When you begin chatting it will start to do live updates from your area with other people who are chatting, you can disable this by unchecking the box (you’ll see why you might want to do this in a sec). You can change your user name to, the random string of numbers is mostly me being lazy and no implementing a full user database, that’s on the cards for the future.

Currently it will only return the first 10 Twitter posts but it will return all the Flickr pictures in the area. I wanted to get the chats popping up there as well for this release however I haven’t found a way to get the info windows to update dynamically, I believe this is a limitation of the api wrapper I’m using. Also if you’re chatting any information from outside your area will probably be cleared when it next refreshes. This seems to be a fun bit of AJAX that isn’t supposed to happen, but any partial post back triggers the map to update itself.

Here’s what I think is wrong with it so far (in terms of bugs):

  • Internet Explorer doesn’t work properly. The click event handler seems to report a wildly different location in IE then it does in Firefox/Chrome. For now, IE is unsupported and I’ll recommend Firefox for anyone who’s having trouble using it.
  • The chat inserts new lines at the top rather then at the bottom. This is because ASP doesn’t have a clean way to put the chat messages at the bottom and keep the scroll bar there. To save everyone scrolling down whenever they post a message or when it updates I thought it best to put them at the top.
  • Live updates kill any information on the map that wasn’t added in a certain way. For some reason any partial render of the screen causes the map to think it has to do a postback to. I haven’t been able to disable this but when you use the buttons at the bottom this information won’t be wiped. The functions are basically identical, but I can’t get information from clicking on the map to be persistent. I’ve wrote to the author of the wrapper about this, we’ll see what he says.

So what’s the big idea for all this? Well what I wanted to make was an application where you could zoom in on an area and see what’s going on there. This application does most of that now but what I’m looking to do is to build in a request information section and then anyone who’s on Geon (it will be available on mobiles….one day!) can submit pictures/text/whatever back up. I thought this would be amazing for breaking news events as long as there was enough users of course :)

I’d love to hear what everyone thinks about it and what you believe would be great to add in. I’ve already got a Google Wave integration idea in the works which I’m sure everyone will like. Experience has shown me that your users are the ones who matter, so I’m opening up the floodgates for you guys to craft the direction Geon takes over the coming months.