Place is a Tag: How Our Phones Should Work

We are surrounded by objects encased in invisible layers of information.

Thanks to Google Maps and other geographic information system (GIS) tools, we’ve come to expect at least some of the objects around us – like our streets, parks and major monuments – to unveil their underlying information to us.

What will our lives be like when the other objects that surround us do the same thing?

I ask this question because I believe we have become increasingly detached from our sense of place – and that with an economy that rewards commoditization and a collapsed infrastructure for local media, it’s become harder and harder to tell one place from another.

This post is about mobile technology and how it will soon unveil the information embedded in the places where we live and work in much richer ways than it does today. It’s an exciting new direction for the technology, but more importantly, I think this renewed connection with place is good for the soul.

The Semantic Web is Here

Last May, I did a short post on the future of search, highlighting Google’s new recipe search feature, which nicely demonstrates the power of semantic search. The feature works by “tagging” recipes with various attributes such as ingredients, cooking time and calories. Search for chicken and pasta recipes, and you can quickly filter recipes based on whether they contain certain ingredients. It’s cool, and very useful.

What Google is doing by tagging recipes, air flightsshopping, and books with semantic tags will eventually be the norm for pretty much any information we seek. It’s the future of search.

Geo Tagging

Of all the semantic tags we’ll end up using though, place will be the most important. We will use it a lot.

Even a dead squirrel is news if it's your lawn...Place-tagging, or geo-tagging, will make it easier to retrieve and publish hyper-local news via mobile devices, which will make that kind of news much more valuable. For example, think how much more salient and valuable news coverage on your city council’s plans to cut funding for certain bus lines would be if that news were to pop up on the phones of people while they’re standing at the affected bus stops.

It’s not just news though; all kinds of information becomes more valuable when it’s geo-tagged for quick and easy access via mobile devices. For an interesting example, check out the Wiki Offline iPhone app, with its geo-tagged Wikipedia articles. I was using it in Chicago last summer and suddenly the office buildings around me popped to life with new relevance (that’s the United Airlines headquarters; the local Microsoft office, where Leo Burnett pioneered advertising like the Malboro Man – not the kind of stuff on most tourist maps, but interesting to me).

Wikipedia is now geo-tagging articles, so that when you look up the things and places like the Buckingham Palace, you’ll see its geographic coordinates in the upper-right section of the page. We humans aren’t really the intended audience for these tags though – our machines are.

Maps? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Maps!

The GPS in our Android phones, iPhones and Windows Phones knows how to interpret those Buckingham Palace coordinates in order to place a little marker on Google Maps and tell us how to get there by drawing some lines on our map. But drawing stuff on a map isn’t the only way to use geo tags.

What if, when I opened my Android phone’s browser window, the first thing I saw was a list of information about what’s right in front of me, displayed like today’s search results?

Just because some content has geo tags doesn’t mean it has to be displayed on a map. Always throwing geo-tagged information on a map is actually just a holdover from desktop computing, where most of the time we’re looking for stuff “out there” and need to know where the “there” is. When we’re using mobile devices, we already know where that “there” is because it’s right in front of us.

When I’m mobile, I want to get information on what’s near me really quickly and easily – and that shouldn’t always entail going through a map.

Geo-Marks, Geo-Lines and Geo-Blobs

Let’s say we’re in agreement that there are times when geo-tagged information shouldn’t go on a map. So if place is the primary search criteria, how do we actually specify our location? There are three approaches that I’ll highlight.

The first way of specifying a location is to set a specific point, draw some arbitrary radius around it, and call everything inside that radius relevant. Even though it might not be all that exact, this approach is good because it’s simple.

Links to information about things in the search radius would still be ranked by the same kinds of algorithms used to prioritize search results today, so that, if I’m standing next to the Buckingham Palace, the first listing would likely be its Wikipedia article because that’s the most popular site connected with it.

Here are a couple of other applications:

  • Yes. Cute.I’m shopping at the local supermarket, open my browser and am taken directly to the store’s coupons on its website.
  • I’m standing in front of the tree kangaroo exhibit at the zoo, open my phone’s browser and immediately get the Wikipedia article on the tree kangaroo. Yes. It is cute.

You get the idea. Now let’s move from using a single geo mark to a second method, which is using a “geo-line.” We use geo lines when we’re getting directions from point A to point B on Google Maps, but in this case, rather than drawing lines on a map, we’re retrieving information about the things between those points on the line. Say I’m planning to take a hike on a nearby trail and want information about all the major points of interest along my route so that I can better plan my trip. Another example is pulling a list of ratings-sorted restaurant reviews between Seattle and Portland so I know which town to stop in on my ride down. Eventually, I might want these things on a map so I know how to get to them, but at first I just want to know a bit about them to help me make some decisions – and where they are on a map doesn’t really matter at that point.

If I want to be very specific about a location, I can use a third method, which is to create a map polygon (or, more affectionately, a “geo-blob“) as a way of very tightly specifying what is inside and outside my target location. The resulting polygon shapes can be as large as an electoral district, city or neighborhood, and as small as a basketball court in a local park, a bookshelf in a library, or a shelf in a retail store.

The red region on the map to the left marks a particular section of a park near my home in Seattle. Websites that are tagged with locations inside that polygon would automatically show up the instant I step into that geo blob and open my phone’s browser. Again, it wouldn’t show up on a map, but in search results. There’s a swimming pool there, and with this approach, I could very quickly see its hours of operation with just a click or two in my browser. No typing, and again, no maps needed.

The general term for what I’m describing is geo-fencing, a term you’re likely to start hearing fairly frequently in the not-too-distant future.

“Info Zoom”

Zoom in for a closer look...When it comes to using our phones to consume place-based information using the same kinds of results we have with today’s text-based searches, it’d be nice to give ourselves a little more control over how tightly we constrain the geographic parameters of our search. To do that, what if we borrowed the metaphor that works so intuitively with online maps – you know, that little zoom slider on the left side of Google Maps – and applied it to text-based search results?

Imagine walking through your neighborhood, pulling out your phone’s browser and being able to quickly and easily zoom in and out to various “scales” of news and information. Zoom all the way in, and get news stories and other information related to the bus stop where you’re waiting for your bus. Or imagine shopping at your local drug store while you’re zoomed in at the cold medicine section – and boom! – instant reviews, coupons, and other information to help you choose the best remedy for what ails you. No need to type “cold medicine” or see stuff on a map. Just the information you want, right away, because your phone better understands your physical context.

Now, zoom out a bit, and see what’s happening in your block and then the larger neighborhood. Zoom out more and get information on your city. Once you’ve zoomed out to the max, it’s like having no geographic filter on at all.

Remember, we’re talking about interacting with this information via an Android phone, iPhone, or Windows Phone, so you’ll be doing the zooming in and out with just a simple sliding gesture of your finger on the left-side of the screen. With a sufficiently fast data connection (and some good engineering from Google and other search providers), the results should change fairly instantaneously, giving you a nice intuitive sense for how to manage your zooming.

I’ve been thinking about this kind of slider-based approach to defining our context for improved information retrieval. It’s part of something I call “contextual computing” and geography is just one of the dimensions to take into account. I’ll be sharing more about these ideas over the course of this year.

Tools for Setting Geo Tags

I want this phone right now! Don’t you? I mean, you just need to do a little creative brainstorming to see how the kind of geo tagging of information I’m talking about here would really change the way we interact with our surroundings. Well, it’s coming.

To get there though, we need to start tagging a whole lot of things with geo tags. And to do that, we’re going to need some tools. Some of them are already here – on Google Maps. Just click “My places” then “Create Map” for a set of tools to help you place marks, lines and shapes anywhere you want on your maps.

That’s how you do it today – from your desktop. But that’s a pain. Far better to do it from your phone – on location. That’s where geo-tagging services like geoloqi are stepping in. Geoloqi allows you to leave a “Geonote” in a particular location so that it will pop up as a reminder whenever you’re near it. Want a reminder to buy milk when you’re at the convenience store? Just pop in a Geonote reminder.

Mapping isn’t restricted to the outside either. It’s moving into our buildings and other aspects of our built environment. Check out meridian to look at the extremely detailed maps they’re doing of places like the famous Powell’s Books in Portland.

Google is actively pursuing indoor mapping as well. Check out this “streets view” surround image of the actual insides of a shop, available from within Google Maps:

And check out their directions for uploading floor plans so that they can be integrated in with Google Maps. Wow. This space is really heating up and Google is pouring a lot of resources into it.

People Powered

Imagine millions of people walking around tagging information to locations to make it more useful. Sure, there will inevitably be more systematic, automated ways of doing this kind of tagging, such as RFID and other tricks. But in the end, much of this will be done by the power of the crowd.

In a way, it’s analogous to the way that we make information more useful via social networks. When we post stuff on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, we’re essentially adding a social tag that says “I endorse this link and think it may be interesting to you.” In this sense, people are “Information Networkers” in that they network, or connect, information to other people by using these social networks. Going forward, Information Networkers will extend the way they connect information by also tagging it to place. I see this place-tagging as having a potentially renaissance-like impact on local news.

We will tag personal notes to place, as you can now do with geoloqi. We will also make some of those notes public, and that will fundamentally change the business of Yelp and other place-based review sites. My reviews for certain places will no longer be contained in data structures of these websites; they will instead be open and free for any web service to grab if they know what to do with my geo tags. And just as people use web bookmarking services like del.icio.us and Diigo to tag existing web pages by topic today, these and other services will evolve to extend these tags to include location. Twitter’s Tweet Location feature could also be morphed to serve this end, and is already adding to the cloud of geo-tagged bits of information floating around us.

In all likelihood, we won’t even be aware of the most powerful geo-tagging we’ll do, as Google increasingly uses our search location to refine the geo relevance of information. When lots of people search for Eiffel Tower while standing in front of it, for example, there’s a good probability the sites they visit are related to that spot. Google tracks search query location today and even makes it available, by topic, on a city-by-city basis on Google Trends.

Google has long since used crowd sourcing to build its core search business, so what I’m talking about here with people-powered locational context is just an extension of the way they currently build the value of their search services. It also partially explains why the Android mobile platform is so important and fits so nicely with Google’s overall strategy.

Who Controls the Geo Tags? We Do!

So here’s a critical question – who actually controls what tags show up in which particular places?  The answer to this question is thornier than you might think. It pits property rights against freedom of speech, and I predict it will be the subject of much legal controversy in the years to come.

As geo-tagging tools proliferate, people will tag all kinds of places with all kinds of information, and sometimes the interests of geo taggers will clash with the owners of the places being tagged.

Let’s say you’re a fan of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s work to ensure sustainably harvested seafood. You could set up a geo-fence to point people to recommendations for which fish are and aren’t ok to eat when they open their browser in front of the seafood section of your local market. That’s good for you, good for me, and good for the planet – but if you’re the store manager, you might not be so happy. What he or she wants is for people to see is information about the quality of the store’s seafood or maybe some coupons, but not “do-gooder” trying to convince you not to buy one of their more profitable items.

It gets thornier still. What about dissatisfied customers leaving complaints geo-tagged for the entrance of a store or restaurant? What about spam and obscenities? These are tough questions, many of which will undoubtedly have to be resolved in a court of law.

Yes, business owners’ problems tagging have just shifted from spray paint to software-based geo-tags, and as legitimate as those concerns will be, in the end, I believe we will need to decide them in favor of free speech. If the only geo-tagged information we get when we walk into a McDonalds restaurant is what its franchise owner wants us to see, we’ve just lost an important aspect of free speech and a critical means for helping to encourage good behavior by the various institutions in our lives. It will get messy. It will get ugly. But it’s essential that individuals be allowed to control what layers of information are tagged to the physical spaces that surround them.

This is important stuff and these issues will crop up regularly in the years ahead.

There’s No App for That!

Today, geo-tagged information reaches us on our phones through lots of little iPhone and Android apps. Remember the seafood guidance I mentioned above? Well, there’s an app for that.

This app-centric approach means that for every little geographically-relevant information need I have, whether it’s looking up seafood or tracking local emergencies, I need to remember which app to use and that there even was an app for that in the first place. This is not how people behave, and it’s ultimately why most apps based exclusively on the value of geo-tagged information are ultimately doomed to fail.

As the web moves to HTML5, your browser will increasingly support geolocation, which is going to mean a lot for your phone. When that happens, the need for all these little geo-tagged apps will go away and simply be replaced by websites marked up with really good geo-tagged information. That way, when you’re standing someplace and want some information about it, you simply open your browser – and boom – there it is.

Of course, the reality will be more complicated. We will need to make trade-offs between what we are looking for and where we are looking for it, and I have some ideas for that which I will share in a future post. We’ll also need to be able to deal with geo-spam to make sure we aren’t deluged with geo-tagged info garbage.

Why This Matters

Once hundreds of millions of smart phone users have this kind of browser-based, geo-tagged information experience, demand for truly local content will skyrocket.

Much of that demand will be for information on local restaurants, stores, bars, coffee shops, and other businesses. Google and Facebook see huge advertising dollar there, and that’s what’s fueling their heavy investments in localized information services, which is a very good thing for small businesses and communities around the world.

A decent portion of that demand for local information will also be for news and information that’s not strictly commercial. What’s happening with this park? Has the construction permit for that new apartment building down the street been approved? How dangerous is this part of town? We will have much richer answers to these types of questions and a much deeper understanding of what’s happening around us all the time, which will also be a very good thing for small businesses and communities around the world.

It’s true that communication technologies helped turn our world into a “Global Village” where place often seems to no longer matter. But our next generation of mobile technologies is now reaching a turning point that I believe will reverse that state of affairs.

Place-based software will increasingly help us re-connect with the places that matter most to us in life. It will even the odds for smaller, local businesses and help us explore and feel more connected with the nooks and crannies of our neighborhoods, cities, and natural surroundings. These new communication tools will introduce new challenges, to be sure, but I believe they will also reinvigorate our attachment to place and build stronger connections with our communities, and that, in the end, it’s those kinds of connections that matter most to the human soul and why the coming geo-tag revolution matters most.

 

Composited image made up of package image by donovanbeeson and phone image by Johan Larsson. Thank you.

 

 

5 comments

  1. Great article Gid. I’m conscious that this presents real challenges for folks for whom their locations could potentially be used to prove their whereabouts. I’m interested in the privacy ramifications and how this can be used as evidence especially in immigration cases. For vulnerable folks at risk… it seems location technologies really up the ante.

  2. Yes, I completely agree, people are indeed losing their sense of place as society becomes simply a collection of (locally) disconnected online consumers. As the world shrinks in the coming years, rediscovering what’s happening around you will become increasingly important. My site http://placerama.com/ is all about building stronger local communities but in a way that protects the location privacy of individuals (see our privacy policy at http://placerama.com/privacy-policy/)

    • Nice service, Andrew, and glad that you are being sensitive to the issues around privacy, identity, etc. The struggle with all these approaches is building a critical mass of listings and users in very decentralized locations. That’s why I think that the key will be when Android and iPhone (and Windows Phone) build in better support for place tagging. It’s coming, and having just switched from an iPhone to an Android phone this week, I am seeing that Google is way, way out front on this stuff from Apple. 

%d bloggers like this: