Social Location: Is Google Latitude the GPS Revolution’s Killer App?

There is much talk recently about the GPS Revolution. Just look at the cover of the latest issue of the WIRED magazine. Technology power houses like Google, Microsoft, Nokia, T-Mobile and large social networks like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn are offering location aware features or sharing options. And of course there are services like Brightkite, Yahoo! Fire Eagle or Plazes that are specialized on location sharing. Let’s break down some of the most basic usage scenarios and best practice examples. And let’s take a look at what Google Latitude offers and how it might fit into the bigger picture.

Since mobile phones found their way into the pockets and hand bags of everyday people the often heard questions when taking a call is: “Where are you?” followed by “What do you do?”. These are the things that most social network services revolve around. Up to the minute status messages have created a new neural network among friends, business partners and otherwise connected crowds. Mark Zuckerberg talks about “creating efficiency within society” and I agree.
And while it is good to see that “Melina has chocolate for breakfast”, “Martin is freezing in Chicago”, or “Jeff is returning from a conference in Berlin”, theses posts are of limited relevance when either enough time has passed between when they are posted and when they are read or simply thousands of miles are between poster and reader. Add in proximity filtering and alerting options and posting like the ones above can become a whole lot more relevant and actionable.

So let’s step back for a moment and have a look at the different usage scenarios of social location features today. There are a few basic differentiation possibilities:

1. Static location information
That’s an easy one. Post your home or business address and see a map of where other users are at home or doing business.

XING – a Germany based business network – allows you to see your contacts on a map. This is helpful when you have no idea where a contact’s home town or office location is, but it only puts a static location on a map. It’s not sharing a current location of a contact and hence doesn’t cater for ad-hoc meetings or location based information exchange. Please note that XING color-codes locations it can not geo-code exactly; so the point on the map and actual position of a contact’s business address to not match. That is because either the user has not entered his full address or doesn’t want to share the exact location with every other user – a good to see application of privacy rules.

XING Contacts Map
XING Contacts Map

2. User posted activity and location information
This takes things a step further. These are often referred to as “Status Messages”. Users who post their current activity in combination with location information expose themselves voluntarily. They open an opportunity to connect with them based on their activity and location.

But that information is only of value as long as activity and location last. As soon as the window of opportunity closes without the user actively updating she is moving on, you may arriving at the bar where your friend is enjoying a drink only to find out she is not there anymore.
Some services give their users the option to enter future activities and locations and to time when the information is released. Plazes allows this and another good example is Dopplr,  a service for frequent travelers which lets their users share their trips and travel tips.

Plazes - Share Location and Activity
Plazes - Share Location and Activity

The advantage of this non-automated sharing is user have full control over what and when to share what they do and where they are with the outside world. They can do both, an activity update with location, e.g. “Jay is at Mobile World Barcelona, booth 1G45(1-0) with his jaw to the floor.” They can share only limited location information, e.g. “Jay is in Barcelona” (or pretend, because Jay is actually at home in Mesa, Arizona and watching TV). And of course there is no need to include location information at all, e.g. “Jay is at a congress seeing amazing things”.

As Status Messages are the most basic – and easiest to implement – form of sharing location you will see theses in nearly all social networking services.

Facebook News Feed
Facebook News Feed

3. User posted events, enriched with automated location information
This is very similar to the status messages from above. But while users actively and manually use these services to post their current activities they don’t have to include the location into their status update manually; it’ll be added automatically based on their actual location.

There are various ways to do this: geo-IP, Geode, WiFi geo-location or GPS to just name a few. Depending on the device, technology used and the current location of the user this is more or less accurate.
The two essential privacy options needed when implementing this are; first, an option for users to decide whether they actually want their current location to be appended when posting an activity and second, a selection possibility for how accurately to share the location, e.g. city level or exact location.

There are various services out there like Brightkite or Yahoo! Fire Eagle and interestingly they are really strongly focusing on automating location with the possibility to optionally add on activity information rather than the other way around. I personally find this a bit odd because what is the point of sharing where you are without any context?

Brightkite User Update
Brightkite User Update

But there is also challenge for these kind of services. They are only of value when they are able to create a network effect. It’s pretty pointless posting activity and location when no one listens or takes action upon the information.
Some social networks are open enough to let users tie in location and activities information into their status messaging. Facebook who is aiming to become a social aggregator is particularly good at this. Check out their Facebook Connect API.

Brightkite Update on Facebook
Brightkite Update on Facebook

But location information can also be appended to other online activities. Google Mail has just added a new feature which allows users to automatically add their current location as part of an e-mail signature.

4. Real-time, automated location information
The location of vehicles, valuables, convicts or personalities have all been tracked for a long time already. So this is not really brand spanking new.
New is the ability for a broader audience to broadcast themselves and follow others without the need for very special equipment. A new window of possibilities has opened with the growing adoption of super-smart phones equipped with enough processing power and space to run location-aware application at all times in the background. Now users can feed and receive a constant stream of location information to social networks without lifting a finger.

With the right level of privacy controls in place this is probably the most comfortable and interesting option of the four discussed in this post. Throw in proximity based alerting options as a feedback channel to enable location based instant meetings and socializing. These proximity alerting options may not only be person based, they could also be place based.
So let’s say a user traveled to a meeting which got canceled. She now has three hours to kill before the next flight home. Setting her device into explore mode, she can follow the trails and tips of previous visitors or locals and go see places or meet industry peers in the area. And in case the user is more interested in finding a place with free WiFi and decent cup of coffee; there may be an offer just around the corner. In fact my colleagues at NAVTEQ Media Solutions have built a location based advertising network for advertisers to send message to selected customers based on their location and time of day through either their mobile device or in-vehicle navigation unit. Needless to say this is also based on real-time, automated location information and works both one-way and with a two-way connection that is standard on phones and soon on many navigation devices.

NAVTEQ Location Based Advertising Network
NAVTEQ Location Based Advertising Network

But let’s come back to social location and the super-smart phones and look at some figures and trends to see where this may take us.
Currently only about 5% of the 3.2 billion mobile phones in use worldwide are super smart phones, according to T-Mobile’s Hamid Akhavan. But there are two factors indicating a tremendous growth in the coming months and years. The growth of data traffic is surging worldwide – Western Europe is showing growth of 400% annually.
In many regions of the world people simply don’t own PCs or let alone have easy access to high speed internet to explore social location at home. But they do have a phone – and often having a fancy phone is both, a social status booster, and a piece of freedom and independence. And here is a story Mark Zuckerberg told in Davos: “People in the Middle East walk 2 miles to a cyber café to check out Facebook and then use the app on their phone.”
25 million users of the Facebook Mobile app proof that mobile is becoming an increasingly important factor for the success of social networks. (Note: comScore attested Facebook 200 mio. unique visitors for Nov. 2008 )

Several real-time location broadcasting services for mobile phones already exist and have been reviewed in depth.
So I would like to take a closer look at one new entrant: Google Latitude
Google Latitude can be used on compatible phones and on computers. It allows its user to constantly broadcast their location to their contacts. This of course only works well from phones – the desktop version has other advantages we will look at later. So the mobile application is what users should get.
But don’t expect a stand-alone application. Google has done a very, very clever thing here: they integrated Latitude into Google Maps Mobile. So not only new users download both functionalities at once, existing Google Maps Mobile users who update to version 3 can instantly tap into Latitude. And if you have an account with Google already, there is no need to sign up for a separate Latitude account. Google has enabled single sign-on – like with every other Google service out there – and hence removed another barrier of conversion.

Location detection in Google Maps Mobile and Latitude work either based on GSM localization or GPS. A flat rate data plan is recommended as Latitude will constantly stream a user’s location information, even in the background while others tasks are performed on the phone. Interestingly when shutting down the Google Maps on my Nokia it asks me whether I want to continue to share my location with Latitude.

If a user doesn’t have an existing Google account or wants to set up something with a separate user id, it’s easily done from the phone. An e-mail address and password is all that is needed. Once signed-in users can add or change their status message, profile picture, phone number and privacy settings. You can see the different universal setting in the screen shot below.

Google Latitude Privacy Settings
Google Latitude Privacy Settings

    But it gets even better. Let’s say a user has set Latitude to automatically detect, update and share her location. Now she can also set the level of location accuracy and sharing individually per contact:
    – Share best available location
    – Share only city level location
    – Hide location from this friend

    Actually, when connecting with a new friend Latitude will ask users to select one of the three choices. This can be edited any time later. So a user can decide to share her best available location when she is comfortable doing so but can also switch ad hoc to not share or share the city level only anytime. This comes in handy when a user wants to escape the watching eyes of the boss, the spouse, the mother or whomever else the user accepted sharing her location with but now needs to give that a break.

    Adding new contacts to Latitude is limited to entering a friend’s e-mail address manually or selecting from existing Google Mail contacts (if the user has an active Google Mail account). So there is no user directory or any possibility to see or connect to other, yet unknown users. As of now, there are also no tie-in possibilities into social networks.

    As said Google Latitude for phones comes in combination with Google Maps Mobile. Once signed up and friends added, simply fire up Google Maps on the phone, select Latitude from the options to see your own and friends’ positions on the map or as a list.

    Google Latitude Friends List
    Google Latitude Friends List

    Because Latitude is part of Google Maps there are some clever integration options like getting directions to a friend or search something nearby a friend’s location. When the friend has added his mobile number, calling or sending a text is possible directly from Latitude as well. However, there is no direct friend messaging embedded within Latitude.

    Another good addition is the possibility to use Latitude within iGoogle on a computer. You get the same options and friend viewing possibilities. Of course signing up and adding friends is much easier on the bigger screen. And because Latitude is run from Google’s servers every addition or change users make on their computer is instantly reflected on the phone as well.

    Using the desktop version I was actually wondering whether Latitude might be a good entry level alternative for vehicle tracking for small businesses. Let’s say a cab, bike messenger or delivery company equips each of their pedal pushers with a proper phone and signs them up for Google Latitude. The dispatcher would then have a pretty good idea of where they are and possibly what their status is. This will lack many of the features of a professional industry solutions but maybe a good low cost entry for some.

    I hope you enjoyed reading this article and as always I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Please get in touch!

    Finally I would like to recommend reading WIRED Magazine’s “I Am Here: One Man’s Experiment With the Location-Aware Lifestyle“, TechCrunch’s “The State of Location-Based Social Networking On The iPhone” and take a look at the comprehensive list of social location service by Claudio Schapsis.

    3 thoughts on “Social Location: Is Google Latitude the GPS Revolution’s Killer App?

    1. The killer use case for Latitude for me has been while traveling with colleagues. I was in Oulu, Finland last night and several of us split off and arranged later to meet up at a local bar. Turning on Latitude to beacon my location, it was easy to see where my colleagues (I work for Nokia) were and for them to find out where we were so they could join us.

      Integration with communication channels is key. Ovi Contacts in its current form is basically a mobile chat client with location sharing built in. In the middle of a chat session I was able to click Send > Location and it sent my location via a link over the chat session which was a nice way to answer the “where are you?” question.

      Latitude is a location centric view of the social web, Ovi Contacts is a people centric view. Both are valuable starting points.

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