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June 04 2013

Heimliche Überwachung mittels GPS-Empfänger grundsätzlich strafbar

Der BGH hat heute entschieden, dass sich ein Privatermittler, der am Auto der von ihm observierten “Zielperson” einen GPS-Empfänger – vermutlich eher einen Sender – anbringt und dadurch ermittelt, wann sich das Fahrzeug wo aufhält, grundsätzlich nach §§ 44, 43 Abs. 2 BDSG strafbar macht (Urteil vom 4. Juni 2013, Az.:  1 StR 32/13).

Für die Frage, ob die Gestattungstatbestände der § 28 oder 29 BDSG eine solche Datenerhebung erlauben, ist zwar eine Abwägung der widerstreitenden Interessen im Einzelfall erforderlich. Nach Ansicht des BGH kann aber nur bei Vorliegen eines starken berechtigten Interesses an dieser Datenerhebung die Abwägung ausnahmsweise (etwa in notwehrähnlichen Situationen) ergeben, dass das Merkmal des unbefugten Handelns bei diesen Einsätzen von GPS-Empfängern zu verneinen ist.

Die Entscheidung dürfte grundsätzlich für Fälle von Geotargeting bzw. Geolocation ohne ausreichende datenschutzrechtliche Einwilligung des Betroffenen von Bedeutung sein.

Quelle: Pressemitteilung des BGH

April 12 2012

Christopher Schmitt and Simon St. Laurent discuss HTML5

Are we entering a new revolution on the web? HTML5 author and conference organizer Christopher Schmitt sat down to talk with O'Reilly editor Simon St. Laurent about why it's a great time to be a web developer. The new HTML5 spec has brought back the conversation about the web. Developers have been hacking the web for the last several years, and now those techniques have been pulled out of the hands of the developers and into the browser for better, faster websites. Let's hope we see continued innovation in the coming years to strengthen the ecosystem and personal connections.

Highlights from the full video interview include:

  • HTML5 and friends. HTML5 is often thought of a collection of technologies released at the same time, even though they aren't all technically "HTML5". [Discussed at the 0:39 mark]
  • The open web has won. Frameworks have given developers a way to create and share advances across browsers. [Discussed at the 03:29 mark]
  • Relieving your headaches. Native video and audio reduce the number of tasks needed to get media content on the web. [Discussed at the 05:20 mark]
  • Hybrid skills. Web developers need to understand code, design, and UI/UX to thrive in this evolving world. [Discussed at the 11:50 mark]
  • Design friendly CSS. Despite all the focus on HTML5 and JavaScript, CSS is growing ever more powerful and important. [Discussed at the 14:23 mark]
  • Accessible PDFs. PDFs are part of the mix, even if they follow a different track. [Discussed at the 23:46 mark]

Fluent Conference: JavaScript & Beyond — Explore the changing worlds of JavaScript & HTML5 at the O'Reilly Fluent Conference (May 29 - 31 in San Francisco, Calif.).

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

March 12 2012

Understanding place and space in a decreasingly English world

I'm So Confused! by Ian Sane, on FlickrRobert Munro (@WWRob) is a graduate fellow at Stanford University and chief executive at Ibidon who's fascinated with languages that are spoken by very few. At Where 2012, Munro will examine differences in how people express place, distance, and space among the world's 5,000-plus languages. These are differences that location-aware app designers will have to pay attention to as the world's data becomes less and less predominantly English.

Our interview follows.

What are some of the ways that space and direction are expressed differently among cultures?

Robert Munro: We tend to think of spatial distinctions as absolute and clean-cut, but when you scratch the surface, it is clear that we encode space and direction in many very subtle and language-specific ways. If I said, "look in front of the house," do I mean "in front of" relative to you, me, or the house itself? Or if we've been looking at an aerial map together, maybe I just mean to the north, south, or roadside.

Even in English, location can be difficult to embed into technology. If you ride the light rail in Portland, Ore., you might hear an ethereal voice saying, "The doors on my right side will open." Is this the (somewhat creepy) disembodied voice from the train that you are inside, meaning the doors on the right in the direction of travel? Is it from the virtual driver facing the passengers, meaning the doors on the left in the direction of travel? Portland recently hosted the annual conference of America's top linguists; even they had to wait for the train to stop to figure it out.

Why are these differences important for geo developers to consider?

Robert Munro: The majority of the world's digital information is now in non-English unstructured text. There are some 5,000 languages in the connected world, each of them spoken by people operating potentially location-aware devices.

The location-based applications on those devices are abstracted from space, time and direction, using visual and verbal metaphors for each. Every language encodes space and time differently and there is a direct relationship between visual spatial metaphors and language. Recent research has found this link to be much stronger than once thought — even short-term changes in language can drastically alter the way we perceive space and time. For some languages, the future is in front of us, but for others it is behind us. Some languages use length is a metaphor for time (a long time) while some prefer volume (a large amount of time). Some languages will prefer relative directions (turn left) while others will only permit absolute directions (turn north). Location-based applications use every one of these metaphors, so it is important for developers to understand the rich breadth of spatial and temporal metaphors that they are (often unconsciously) coding into their applications. As the applications often have a visual language of their own, it is safe to say that they can also have a direct influence on their users' sense of space and time. After staring at a map before exploring some new place, did you ever feel like you then had an augmented reality view of the place thanks to that map? In a sense, you probably did.

Can you tell us about the work you did after the Haiti earthquake to crowdsource local information from a global diaspora of Haitians?

Robert MunroRobert Munro: Mission 4636 was a crowdsourced information service established in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. People within the country were able to send free text messages that were then translated and mapped by crowdsourced workers and streamed back to responders within the country. We launched in 48 hours. I ran the actual crowdsourcing component — finding and managing thousands of Haitian Kreyol and French speakers globally who could help.

It taught me two important lessons. The first is that nothing beats local knowledge. Members of the Haitian diaspora thousands of miles away were quicker at geolocating vital locations in Haiti than many international workers on the ground. The second lesson that it taught me is that it is hard to find those who have the crucial local knowledge. At the time, I needed to reach out through social media, looking for (mostly) ad-hoc groups of people with Haitian affiliations. There simply wasn't a unified resource that links people by languages spoken.

This has influenced me greatly. For every corner of the world, there is a global network of largely untapped local knowledge, and it is just as applicable to travel and trade as it is to crisis response. It gives us one solution to the problem of encoding location in technology. For a given problem, there is probably someone online right now who does have the necessary local linguistic and geographic knowledge. In addition to making technology smarter across languages, we also need to be making technology that can better engage these individuals. With Idibon, we are doing both, building language-processing algorithms that can parse unstructured data in previously unknown languages and linking this to a global network of language speakers. In Haiti, we were able to transfer the system to local, paid workers within the country, continuing the local knowledge and providing employment where it was needed most. I would love to see this kind of approach adapted more broadly, turning people's knowledge of less well-known languages to their advantage.

Where Conference 2012 — O'Reilly's Where Conference, being held April 2-4 in San Francisco, is where the people working on and using location technologies explore emerging trends in software development, tools, business strategies and marketing.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

How is location used in viral forecasting by health organizations?

Robert Munro: Location is the oldest and newest component in viral forecasting. In the 1850s, John Snow founded both modern epidemiology and geographic information systems (GIS) when he mapped the location of a London cholera outbreak to a single water pump.

Today, unfortunately, the dynamic maps that you see in outbreak movies outpace the technologies of actual epidemic-tracking organizations. But this is rapidly changing on the back of communication technologies. While HIV took decades to be isolated, Bird Flu and Swine Flu were isolated weeks or months after they first appeared. We can go back and find early, open reports about Bird Flu and Swine Flu with the key signatures of a new virus. This could have enabled us to identify and contain them even earlier, and smarter information processing will allow this for future outbreaks. Within Global Viral Forecasting, a spin-in called epidemicIQ is doing just this, looking to track outbreaks as early as possible. (Disclosure: I was the CTO of epidemicIQ until recently and continue as an adviser.) Local knowledge is vital here, too: 90% of the world's outbreaks come from 10% of the land; 90% of the world's languages also come from 10% of the land. It is the same 10%.

Geographic information systems are finding their way back into real-time outbreak tracking, too. Open data about flight paths and transportation networks allows us to track the potential spread of an outbreak with a precision that was never before possible. At the moment, we are quickly closing the gap on how quickly we can track the spread of outbreaks. Will we soon be able to use the same technology to get ahead of outbreaks? I hope so.

Who else is doing interesting work in this area?

Robert Munro: For almost half a century, most language researchers assumed that the cross-language differences in space and time were more or less arbitrary. Within the last few years, a number of researchers, the Stanford psychologist Lera Boroditsky in particular, have produced strong evidence showing that they can manipulate people's sense of time and space by changing their language, even over very short periods. It has turned many people's assumptions about language and world-view right around.

In health, Nicholas A. Christakis at Harvard and James Fowler at the University of California San Diego have made some very interesting discoveries about the spread of disease, using online social networks as a powerful stand-in for geographic/interpersonal connections. They have been able to make reliable predictions about the spread of outbreaks and other communicable phenomena to several people out along social networks. It is a really exciting new approach.

This interview was edited and condensed. Photo: I'm So Confused! by Ian Sane, on Flickr


March 06 2012

Why Uber's data fascinates a neuroscientist

Uber logoMatching cars for hire with people who want to get places may not be rocket science. But a background in neuroscience couldn't hurt. Where 2012 speaker Bradley Voytek (@bradleyvoytek) has taken his experience as a neuroscience researcher to buzzy car-service company Uber, where he sees similarities between the connections in an urban landscape and those in the brain. Voytek's role with Uber involves figuring out how to make sense of and how to apply the massive amounts of data that the car service and its customers generate. Wrangling that data can help Uber match up cars and passengers more quickly — and has some other promising possibilities, too.

What are you learning from Uber's real-time analytics?

Bradley Voytek: A lot of people think that Uber is just a car service, and that we figure out where to pick people up and where to take them. But as a cognitive neuroscientist, of course I'm interested in human behavior. To me, the coolest thing about what we can learn when we take a deeper look at Uber's data is how people move around a city. We get a little glimpse at how people flow, what neighborhoods are connected, where people go to party on weekend nights. It's fascinating.

What are some of the things you might do with that data?

Bradley Voytek: One of the great things about working for a startup like Uber is spit-balling ideas, talking about possibilities. While I can't talk specifically about what else we might be able to do for our users using their data in terms of the business, you could easily imagine a lot of possibilities. My personal favorite "out there" idea is to ask drivers if they'd be willing to have a multi-sensor attached to their car that sampled air quality, temperature, and other environmental factors. We could make it so our driver partners are involved in "citizen science" in a sense.

How do you make the connection between incoming data, analysis, and business response?

Bradley Voytek: Managing supply is a critical issue. If we have a lot of users wanting a car, but we don't have enough cars on the system, then our wait times increase and the chance of any one user getting a car decreases. This provides a less optimal user experience. So, if we start to see an unexpected increase in demand, we can have our ops team start calling to get more drivers on the system, for example. When we launch in a new city, we need to know where people want us. So, we take a look at where people have been checking us out and look for hotspots of anticipatory activity in a city to make sure we're addressing our eager riders.

Where Conference 2012 — O'Reilly's Where Conference, being held April 2-4 in San Francisco, is where the people working on and using location technologies explore emerging trends in software development, tools, business strategies and marketing.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

Have you opened up Uber's data or compared it with other geo databases to learn new things?

Bradley Voytek: We anonymized some of our data a few months ago for a data visualization competition to see what people could do with it, but so far we haven't shared our data too broadly. I've been working hard to mash up our data with other public data though, to see if I can uncover something cool. For example, a few months back I wanted to see if I could predict which neighborhoods in San Francisco had the most rides based on some demographic information. At first I thought the obvious answer would be population density, but what we see is that people don't always take a car from their home, they take it for business or pleasure, from one social location to another. So, I used public crime data as a surrogate measure for the amount of "activity" in a neighborhood, and that predicted rides much better than population density.

How do you think your neuroscience background shapes the way you do your data work at Uber?

Bradley VoytekBradley Voytek: It's a two-way street. My neuroscience background has influenced the way I think about and work with data: I come from an electrophysiological background. I work with time-series data, so I tend to think about our data in terms of how metrics change over time. I think about cities as a series of connected nodes in a city-wide network, which is analogous to how I think about the brain: a complex network of connected neuronal hubs.

But I've also taken some of the visualization and analytic techniques I learned at Uber back into my neuroscience research, and I've even begun looking at geolocation data in some of my side projects. Specifically, my wife and I created a website with some help from my friend and Uber's head of engineering, Curtis Chambers, called This paper is currently under peer review, but the main idea was to see if we could "map" relationships between neuroscientific topics spread across more than three million peer-reviewed publications. It's an incredibly complex field, spanning psychology, biology, chemistry, medicine, computer science and artificial intelligence, and so on. There's too much data. As I learned new tricks about data visualization and graph theory at Uber, I was able to go back to this project and improve on it. We're trying to do two things: First, aggregate all of these disparate scientific findings into something more digestible (which is at the heart of big data and data visualization), and second, see if we can't learn anything new from these data (again, a core part of big data). So, instead of just visualizing relationships between topics, we're looking at the statistical properties of those 500,000 connections to try and find places where (statistically) connections should exist, but do not. I'm calling this "semi-automated hypothesis generation."

You ran out of time during your Ignite presentation while you were discussing an idea about correlating reaction times (of a brain task, via your work with Lumosity) with automobile accidents. Can you tell us what you found?

Bradley Voytek: Okay, this is very preliminary, but obviously exciting. The data I'm looking at with Lumosity measures attention and cognitive control. They've shared tens of thousands of users' worth of data with me from all over the world. After learning geolocation at Uber, I began to think about what kinds of location-based questions I could answer with the Lumosity data. Given that we're looking at attention and cognitive control, I thought maybe less "attentive" states would have a slightly increased risk of car accidents.

And that's what I'm finding, but with the huge caveats that these data are preliminary, not peer-reviewed, and, of course, complex in that there are a lot of potential factors that may explain the apparent relationship between the Lumos attention measure and car accidents. As I've gathered more state-level data, you start to see interesting correlations among factors like state, age, income, health — all with the usual caveats about interpreting correlations as causation.

Voytek's Ignite presentation is available in the following video.

February 03 2012

Makers and hackers: The Where Conference is looking for you

Where Conference 2012The program for Where, our geolocation and mapping conference, is almost complete. Now we're looking for makers, hackers, developers, and DIYers to bring awesomeness to the 2012 Where Conference (April 2-4 in San Francisco).

There are three ways to participate.

1. Share an amazing geo/location/data visualization video or image

Geodata is often best expressed visually. Inspired by projects like Cab Spotting, Dave Imus' The Essential Geography Of The United States Of America and Eric Fisher's Locals and Tourists, we want your data viz videos, imagery and cartography. (Be sure that you have rights to the underlying data and that you attribute it properly.)

2. Create an interactive RFID installation

Inspired by Mediamatic, each attendee will have an RFID tag that can be paired with our conference social network. If an attendee swipes his or her tag, you'll be able to:

  • Fetch info about the owner of a swiped badge.
  • Show the owner of a swiped badge where they are supposed to be next, according to their personal schedule.
  • Send the owner of a swiped badge a message via the attendee directory.
  • Make two owners of swiped badges contacts within the attendee directory.

3. Mini Maker Faire: Hardware project

The Where Mini Maker Faire will take place on Wednesday, April 4. We're interested in any hardware project that is in the geo/location/sensing space, particularly ones that feature:

  • Kinect/Computer Vision Arduino/Lilypad/ADK Processing for Android
  • Beagle Board/Panda Board
  • Gadgeteer Wearables
  • ROBOTS!!!!

Mini Maker Faire setup includes a four-inch skirted, countertop-level table, Wi-Fi and power.

Acceptances will be rolling. The deadline to get your proposal in is March 1, so apply soon. If your project is accepted for any of the above, you'll receive a pass to Where.

Where Conference 2012 — O'Reilly's Where Conference, being held April 2-4 in San Francisco, is where the people working on and using location technologies explore emerging trends in software development, tools, business strategies and marketing.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

October 11 2011

Why indoor navigation is so hard

Map of the Air and Space museum in Washington, D.C. Remember the days before you could pull your smartphone out of your pocket and get instant directions from your current location to anywhere in the world? It's kind of foggy for me, too.

In fact, I'm so used to relying on my smartphone that I feel increasingly flustered when wandering the aisles of Costco, locating the elephant house at the zoo, or searching for decent food at the airport. Shouldn't my magical pocket computer help me with this, too?

The answer is "yes," of course. But there are challenges to implementing indoor navigation today.

User interface

The maps app on your smartphone has one primary concern: getting you from 106 Main Street to 301 Sunny Lane, or from work to home, or from home to Taco Bell. Why are you going to Taco Bell and what percentage of your taco beef will be meat filler? The app doesn't need to know. Thus, the typical interface for a smartphone maps app is a big map and a search box.

You might assume that an indoor navigation app for, say, the American Museum of Natural History has the same primary concern: getting you from the main entrance to the T-Rex. But why go to the T-Rex? How do I know there's a T-Rex here anyway? And what if my kids have 20 things they want to see and we only have two hours to see everything? And what's going on this week — are there special exhibits?

It turns out that creating a useful indoor navigation app requires more than navigation. So, an effective mobile UI should be more "smart guide" and less "paper maps" on your smartphone.

It's a design challenge, like any other mobile app. Help visitors decide where they need to go first, then direct them there.


Getting directions to the plumbing section of a store is certainly useful. But let's say you're looking for a particular Delta kitchen faucet. Wouldn't it be more useful to search in a retail app for "Delta faucet," check that it's in stock, then get directions right to that product? Who cares if it's in the plumbing section or the kitchen section?

To be truly useful, an app needs to integrate with dynamic data.

Similarly, a university campus app could offer to guide a student to "Kennedy Hall Room 203," but wouldn't it be better to search for "Econ 101" instead? Who cares where Econ 101 takes place today? Even better, just have students enter their name once, fetch their schedule, and automatically take them to whatever their next class is. Why make users do more work than they have to?

Current location

OK, so you decide you want directions to that Delta faucet I mentioned earlier. Ideally, the app will automatically start from your current location.

Now comes the great sadness: GPS, as you may know, does not work indoors. The satellite signals are just too weak to penetrate anything much thicker than the metal roof of your car.

However, all modern smartphones have Wi-Fi built in, and wireless networks are common enough in indoor spaces that an app could easily scan for known access points and calculate your position using trilateration.

Here's the catch, however: Unlike the wide open world of Android, developers on the iPhone side aren't allowed to perform these Wi-Fi "signal scans."

Fortunately, there are alternatives. One approach is to make the building do the work instead of the device. Some Wi-Fi installations, such as the Cisco MSE, can determine the location of any wireless device in the building. The access points themselves listen for the Wi-Fi signals created by your phone, then estimate its position via trilateration. This solution has been deployed successfully at a few locations, including at the American Museum of Natural History.

Designing for inaccuracy

One consequence of most indoor positioning systems is a lower degree of accuracy compared to GPS. For instance, indoor systems can usually guess which room you're in, and that's about it. Precision depends on signal fluctuations, which depend on factors like how many people are in the room, how you're holding your phone, and other vagaries.

An effective mobile app must design for this reality from the very beginning. One technique that will help users greatly is to point out quickly recognizable features of the environment.

The Meridian app, for example, uses a short text label to describe each direction step. (Disclosure: I'm the CTO and co-founder of Meridian.) Below, "Rose Room" is clearly marked in the "real world" space and easy to spot, as are the stairs headed down.

Meridian app
The Meridian app uses step-by-step text labels.

The best way to combat inaccuracy, however, is by making it as easy as possible for users to self-correct. In the Meridian app, the map can easily be dragged, rotated, zoomed in and out, and the turn-by-turn steps can be flipped through with ease. If the starting location isn't perfect, the user will instinctively drag around and figure it out.

Putting it all together

Building amazing indoor app experiences is not only possible, it's already happening. This year alone, many places — from stadiums and retailers to museums and corporate campuses — have launched apps that are used by hundreds of people every day for navigation and to access location-based content.

Indoor Wi-Fi positioning technology isn't a research project anymore; it's out there and works with the devices we all now carry. With the right user interfaces, it can be just as effective as GPS is outdoors.

It's time to spread the incredible experience of wandering around a place as enormously complex as the History Museum without ever feeling lost.


August 25 2011

ePayments Week: The rise of location-triggered offers

Here's what caught my attention in the payment space this week.

Geofencing: As long as you're here ...

Fence Friday by DayTripper Tom, on FlickrOne of the promises of mobile advertising — at least from the merchant's perspective — has been the potential to advertise to customers when they're near your store and can act immediately (and impulsively) on your offer. To make these location-triggered offers, merchants need to delineate a "geofence" around their retail outlets — a radius or polygonal area in which customers who have opted into a deal program can be notified on their mobiles that an offer is available nearby. Indeed, Groupon is working on adding such location-based deals to its daily offers, according to a letter sent from its general counsel David Schellhase to two U.S. Representatives who were asking about Groupon's privacy policies.

Placecast is one company that has been working on this issue. Its service allows merchants or event planners to delineate a virtual perimeter around their locations that marks their space. When customers who have opted in to receive alerts about their retail brand or event enter one of these locations, they get a text message (a "ShopAlert"), describing the offer or event. In an interview, Placecast CEO Alistair Goodman said the company has focused on text messages thus far because they're very effective. By some measures, 90% of all texts are opened within three minutes of receiving them.

This week the company expanded its service so that ShopAlerts can also work as notifications that are linked to apps. Just as with other notifications on iOS and Android, the relevant app doesn't need to be open to receive the notification, but clicking on the notification can trigger the app to open. The new notification capabilities would seem to go well with expected improvements in the way that iOS handles notifications.

Goodman said the key to success in mobile coupons is making the message relevant. "We're only sending a text if it's the right place and time." That's key since most of us are not very good coupon clippers; we're unlikely to retain, remember, and use an offer if we don't do so almost immediately. Goodman said that location-triggered delivery is highly effective with "exceedingly high" response rates: between 11% and 60% of users are likely to visit a store when pinged with an offer if they're nearby, and up to 46% are likely to make a purchase.

More than three million subscribers, mostly in the US and UK, are currently receiving offers from Placecast — though they don't see them as coming from Placecast, which operates as a "white brand" service to other businesses. Goodman emphasizes that subscribers have all opted in via their telecom carriers or a retail brand like North Face. With that much data, there's a back-end business for the company in aggregating and anonymizing the information so it can analyze it and feed data back to merchants on which offers are most effective and when. Indeed, the company's self-service tool with which clients can manage their offers online also includes some data tools for this type of analysis.

It remains to be seen how many customers will be comfortable with this level of interaction with stores — even if they are their favorite brands. On the up side, services like Placecast are merely sending out information based on location awareness; consumers aren't being asked to divulge any financial information. On the down side, some percentage of customers are always going to remain fairly uncomfortable broadcasting their locations in this way to businesses, even if doing so offers tangible rewards. The key to success will depend on how large that percentage is.

Android Open, being held October 9-11 in San Francisco, is a big-tent meeting ground for app and game developers, carriers, chip manufacturers, content creators, OEMs, researchers, entrepreneurs, VCs, and business leaders.

Save 20% on registration with the code AN11RAD

Survey: iPhone users keen on mobile payments

Results of a UK survey about customers' willingness to use mobile payments and banking apps suggest that iPhone users are somewhat more likely to embrace mobile payments than their Android- and Blackberry-carrying peers. According to a summary report on GigaOm, the survey found 46% of iPhone users said they would pay bills with their mobiles compared to only 21% of the total group surveyed. Not surprisingly, younger folks (18-24 years old) were also more comfortable with the idea than their older brothers and sisters.

YouGov's ongoing research has provided some other insights on platform differences among UK users. Loosely generalized, they paint a picture of Blackberry owners as more driven and responsible compared to iPhone users who are more likely to overdraw their bank accounts and spend the day on social networks. According to YouGov:

  • BlackBerry users are likely to earn more, with 10% earning over £50,000 a year compared to 7% of iPhone users and 5% of Android users.
  • iPhone users spend more time on their phones than users of any of the other top models, with 18% spending more than four hours a day on it compared to 4% apiece of Android and BlackBerry users.
  • 63% of iPhone users say social networking apps are among the three they spend the most time on compared to other types.

These results, combined with other research that has found iPhone users may be a more lucrative market for developers than Android users, suggests iPhone users are quicker to spend money on their phones. We can speculate on the reasons. Certainly the higher price point (in many cases) of an iPhone attracts a user who is willing to spend more on technology and its accoutrements. Another possible factor could be their familiarity with the Apple retail model: iPhone users are accustomed to a tightly controlled shop where they deal with a single company that they trust — the same company that made their phone and its software. The Android platform, by comparison, may require users to navigate a telecom interface, Android's operating system, a hardware maker's device, and perhaps a fourth-party app store. That could create a less-structured environment where users may be less comfortable spending money. McAfee's recent report on Android's greater susceptibility to malware may only compound this feeling.

Android phones are the new destination for crapware

And speaking of trust, are telecoms burning up the goodwill of their customers who choose Android handsets by loading them with crapware? Mike Jennings on compares this trend to the same syndrome experienced on Windows-based desktops and laptops in recent years, where the excitement of discovering your new gadget is often dampened by splash screens with offers to sign up for security or media services.

Jennings notes that it's worse this time around since the mobile software, which can degrade performance, is more difficult if not impossible for average users to uninstall. He blames the network carriers, who load up the handsets to fulfill lucrative deals they've signed with software vendors. But there may be a limit to what customers will accept. Earlier this month, the same publication reported that Vodafone was backpedalling on an over-the-air upgrade that loaded up HTC Desire handsets because customers had complained of being tricked into installing the software. "We've listened to feedback from customers on a number of points around the recent 360 Android 2.1 update and made some changes to the rollout plan," Vodafone posted sheepishly on its own forums.

Got news?

News tips and suggestions are always welcome, so please send them along.

If you're interested in learning more about the payment development space, check out PayPal X DevZone, a collaboration between O'Reilly and PayPal.

Fence photo: Fence Friday by DayTripper (Tom), on Flickr


May 12 2011

ePayments Week: Can check-in services prove their value?

Here are a few stories that caught my attention this week in the payments space.

Retailers check-in, teenagers check out

Check-in services appear to be making more deals with card companies and retailers who want to test the waters to see if there's any there, there. Having gained an audience and trained them to perform simple actions on their smart phones, these services now need to tie the act to something meaningful — usually a discount. On the heels of American Express' Foursquare trial at SXSW back in March, rival service SCVNGR has announced a deal with American Express that delivers the discount through the AmEx card. This prevents an embarrassing argument with a sales clerk who doesn't understand why you're showing him the screen of your smartphone. SCVNGR is an interesting entry in the market as it not only lets you create new check-ins, it also lets you come up with fun challenges and add those to the mix (like making origami out of your burrito's foil wrapper).

Retailers are sniffing out the services, too. Starwood, which manages hotel brands like Sheraton, Westin, W and others, is encouraging check-ins by awarding 250 Starpoints (the hotel equivalent of frequent flyer miles) for each check-in, along with the chance to unlock a free night at a Starwood resort. And Murphy USA gas stations in the Midwest are offering $2 off a $20 gas purchase if you check-in — this after a test program giving away a pack of Stride gum drew 15,000 check-ins over a weekend. These discounts may seem bolted on to the Foursquare experience, but they're built-in to services like Shopkick that are all about coupons and rewards. Fierce Developer has an interesting interview with Shopkick's CEO this week, in which he divides check-in apps into three categories: social, gaming, and shopping.

But like coupon clipping, are these services destined to remain the focus of the bored, the middle-aged, and the lonely? A survey by Dubit, a UK-based communications and game-development company, shows the services getting a big yawn from teenagers. Dubit asked 1,000 kids between 11 and 18 years old, and found that less than half of them had heard of any of the check-in services. Facebook Places fared the best with 44% recognition, but even among those who had heard of it, few see the point. This confirms my own anecdotal research, in which I've noticed that while I am pointlessly checking in to a senseless system, my own teenagers are more likely to be texting with a real person on the other end — so their friends already know where they are. Who would have guessed that texting would be considered the more social option?

Skype and Facebook Credits

SkypeOne of the more interesting observations in all the coverage of Microsoft's $8.5 billion agreement to buy Skype was Om Malik's suggestion that the big winner of the deal was actually Facebook, which was happy to see Skype avoid Google's grasp. Instead, Skype has now landed in the camp of a major Facebook investor, which means Facebook could get access to its brand and technology without having to go through the hassle of an acquisition. Malik foresees a mutually beneficial deal where Facebook delivers a wider audience to Skype, which in turn provides a solution to voice-enable Facebook Chat. What's more, Malik pointed out, the deal could mean it becomes possible to use Facebook Credits to buy time on Skype's premium service — yet another possible route for Facebook's virtual currency to enter real-world goods and services.

Can Apple and Facebook take their payments out of the garden?

Walled gardenAs Apple and Facebook maneuver to ensure that third parties using their channels also use their payment systems, there's speculation about whether and when they will try to take their proprietary payment systems out of their walled gardens into the wider world. Michael Koploy, an analyst at Software Advice, paints a picture of Apple extending its retail expertise beyond its own properties and, with an NFC-capable device, enabling smarter shopping at other physical stores. Koploy imagines the iPhone supplying the shopping list, guiding the user through the physical store to find items, scanning and pricing items, alerting shoppers to better deals elsewhere, and speeding up payment for a quick exit. It all seems feasible, but to me it somehow feels like the misery of the self-checkout stand stretched out to ruin the entire shopping experience. What's more, it seems to overlook one of the key advantages of Apple's retail stores: the hip, T-shirted sales associate who helps shoppers understand complex products and moves them effortlessly to purchase, checking them out where they stand. Apple's yet-to-be-discovered competitive edge may lie in a new division that offers sales training.

Another interesting piece comes from Kim-Mai Cutler at Inside Mobile Apps who speculates about a battle between Facebook Credits and in-app payments (this was originally published in February, but it's worth a look if you haven't seen it). Cutler says that given Apple's and Facebook's failure to find some way for Ping and Facebook Connect to play nice, it seems unlikely that Apple would allow Facebook Credits into its stores. However, if Facebook took its Credits payment system out of Facebook's walled garden and onto the web, and if the games in which Credits are valid currency get written in code-once, play-anywhere HTML5, then there's no reason that the Credits couldn't get used on tablets that support HTML5. Cutler's column raises the question of whether this alone could be reason enough for Apple to consider not supporting HTML5. Maybe, but it's difficult to imagine Apple not supporting a dominant display technology that enables universal interactivity and animation and — oh, wait ... never mind.

Got news?

News tips and suggestions are always welcome, so please send them along.

If you're interested in learning more about the payment development space, check out PayPal X DevZone, a collaboration between O'Reilly and PayPal.


April 28 2011

ePayments Week: What does the attention around tracking mean?

Here's what caught my attention in the payment space this week.

3 levels of awareness about geolocation

iPhone trackBefore last week, many mobile users likely weren't thinking about their location data; that's changed for some. Apple, while maintaining that it hasn't been tracking users, promises to change the way location data is stored and transmitted on its mobile devices. But even as Apple's problem dissipates, the discussion has put the issue of location on the radar screen, and reporters and bloggers are digging into what it means.

Watching the discussion over the past week, I've come to think there are three levels of awareness that mobile users have about location data. The first is simple awareness, the understanding that your cell phone and the network it's connected to have to know where you are. The second level is a sort of bargaining that comes from that realization, the idea that you should be getting something back from this data or from the people who store it. And the third level, more proactive still, is that you yourself should have access to this data so that you can do something constructive with it.

Regarding awareness, it may have been an eye opener to insiders that so many consumers weren't aware their cell phones were tracking their movements. A report on NBC's "Today" show began with the line, "It sounds like something out of science fiction: a phone that tracks your every movement." Of course, long before smart phones with maps and check-in services, cell phones had to communicate with nearby cell towers in order to obtain service. GPS and Wi-Fi data have made the pinpointing more precise. But somehow the knowledge that Google Maps on your iPhone can place you at a certain point on the road and show your progress as your bus moves up the street didn't translate, for some people, to an understanding that the phone and your wireless carrier must know where you are and are able to keep a record of it. That's been made clear to a much larger audience now.

In the wake of this understanding, some reporters and bloggers took up the consumer angle, wondering what we get back for giving up this data. This is an excellent point and one on which, I believe, the future of mobile commerce rests. The communication of data must be a two-way street where each party benefits. I give the navigation service my location and pace and, in turn (and for free) it repays me by displaying traffic data for any major city in 70 countries. I tell Foursquare where I'm checking in and it rewards me with information on where my friends have most recently checked in (and perhaps with a few meaningless points and badges, too). I tell Shopkick I'm near the big box stores in town and it sends me coupons for cleaning products. As mobile and location become more integral to purchases, the connection between my giving up location in exchange for another's profit will become more clear — and consumers will get more vocal about negotiating it.

The promise was also floated that, in the hands of the right folks, this data could be analyzed to gain deep social, political, and medical insights. Robert Lee Hotz's excellent article in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal (in front of the paywall) described several academic research efforts exploring how much they can learn from smart phones. Researchers are seeing what they can learn by not only tracking movements, but when equipped with apps that help users record eating habits, social interactions, moves, and gestures, they claim to be learning how political and social opinion are shaped and how users are influenced to make decisions. The marketing implications of this are obvious — that's the other edge of this sword — and Hotz notes that telecom carriers may already be using this data to assess who is most at risk for switching their contract to another phone company.

Some people have taken the case to the third level (being proactive about personal data) and suggest that consumers should be able to access their data, either to see what it tells us about ourselves or to do something else with it. Richard Thaler in The New York Times proposes that wireless carriers make a version of your geolocation data available for your use, so that you could either analyze it or port it to a third party who could. One could argue that this is essentially what Apple got called out for doing, albeit without telling anyone, but Thaler's point is still valid. He cites a simple example of being able to analyze your phone usage for a better plan, though this is a service some carriers already offer if you call them up and ask.

While it's easy to see what merchants and other third parties can provide of value in exchange for your location data (coupons, deals, reviews, directions), we've just begun to explore what we might be able to discover that's greater than a discount. As we've learned, once you provide the dataset, people do amazing things with it. In his follow-up post a week after noting the iPhone tracking details, Pete Warden points to one such use: Maria Scileppi's Living Brushstrokes project, which uses location tracking to create artistic views of people's movements.

And the payment deals keep coming

Facebook DealsReturning to the nitty-gritty of the payments world ... Facebook and Google jumped into the daily coupon business over the past week. Google Offers is promising a debut in Portland soon (the same place Google first tested Hotpot, which was recently folded into Google Places) and Facebook Deals rolled out in five cities. The moves may remind you of the ways both of these companies jumped into the check-in business last fall after seeing the successful uptake of check-ins via Foursquare, Yelp, and Gowalla.

Groupon said it didn't need Google's $6 billion last November, so Google's coming after them. Sharise Cruze on BusinessReviewUSA reported that Google will display its offers on maps, so don't be surprised if the Offers service (like Hotpot before it) gets folded into Places.

Mobile banking 2.0

Bank of America said it's embarking on a series of changes to revise its mobile banking. Writing in American Banker, Andrew Johnson noted that the move is a reminder that early adopters are into a second wave of refinement, applying what they've learned in the first few years of mobile banking to the next wave. Bank of America, Chase, and Wells Fargo are the top three mobile banking apps in the US, according to a report published in Still, there's a lot of room for growth: comScore's annual online credit card report finds that 20% of mobile phone cardholders use their phone to access a bank account, and 13% are doing that via a mobile app. Since mobile and online are a far cheaper way for banks to manage their customers, we can be sure they'll be at work revising the apps to make them easier to use, more appealing, and more capable.

Got news?

News tips and suggestions are always welcome, so please send them along.

If you're interested in learning more about the payment development space, check out PayPal X DevZone, a collaboration between O'Reilly and PayPal.


April 21 2011

ePayments Week: Where adds context to PayPal

Here's what caught my attention in the payment space this week.

EBay buys a hyper-local friend for PayPal

WhereEBay's purchase of Where, a mobile app for finding local deals, gives the gift of context to PayPal. It's the second deal in recent weeks that connects a payment provider with a check-in service or advertiser to make a complete loop from discovery to payment. FourSquare demoed a similar link-up at SXSW last month. EBay will bring the whole deal in house, integrating PayPal into the Where app so that users can discover deals in Where and then pay for them with a single click. Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch offers a solid rationale for the purchase, and also notes the data play inherent in it. All that data that eBay has on its and PayPal's users could help Where server up more relevant offers and advertising to PayPal's users.

PayPal explained the deal in the context of other acquisitions it's making. Amanda Pires, PayPal's senior director of global communications, said in a blog post that "Local commerce companies like Where are blurring the lines between in-store and online shopping." Last month, EBay made another purchase that similarly crossed lines when it said it would buy GSI Commerce, a provider of e-commerce services for retail brands. That deal could eventually put PayPal at the register of physical stores. With the Where acquisition, now they'll have a way to get you to the store, too.

O'Reilly authors discuss iPhone's built-in travel log

iPhone trackThis week's big news in geolocation came from Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, who reported their discovery of an unencrypted file on iPhones (and their synced computers) tracking their movements since they upgraded to iOS4 sometime last summer.

Allan and Warden discussed their discovery at Where 2.0 on Wednesday. Although Apple had yet to offer an explanation of the file to them (or to media inquiries), Allan and Warden said they speculated that the data was from interactions between the phone and radio cell towers, whether that was a call, a text, a data packet, or simply a locating signal. For Allan, it added up to 29,000 points of data over 293 days.

As both hastened to point out, telecom carriers already have this kind of information on you, regardless of what kind of phone you carry. But that data is treated with a higher level of security, since it's considered sensitive. "What's interesting about this data is that it's unencrypted and available," said Allan. "It's insecure." (See Alasdair's post for more details on the discovery and the open source app they created to manipulate and visualize the data.)

Responding to comments that this data had already been discovered and was well known, Allan said during a Where 2.0 session: "It's not well known. We're pretty geeky. If we didn't know, then a lot of people didn't know."

White House calls for identity ecosystem

Just days before Barack Obama headed out to Palo Alto to host a virtual town hall meeting in the real-world space that houses Facebook's headquarters, the White House backed a plan to spur private industry to create more secure forms of online identity. Noting that identity theft and online fraud are serious problems that cost the economy billions every year, the administration called on private industry to come up with a solution that might free the citizenry from the tyranny of dozens of username/password combinations.

Kashmir Hill on wrote that the government's aim is to create an "identity ecosystem," which sounds a lot like the plan that OpenID has been advocating for a while. Emily Badger on looked closely at the line the administration is walking between showing leadership or looking like Big Brother. Badger talked with Amie Stepanovich, national security counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. The interview gives the sense the White House tiptoed carefully around this point, making sure it wasn't suggesting a government-issued national online identity number (something that's been kicked around before but wouldn't be received well by most citizens) and scrubbing any sign of the Department of Homeland Security's involvement (even though, Badger notes, they've been involved in the formative thinking on this issue for years).

Any authentication system raises new risks. If a security key fob is necessary, like the ones provided by RSA, people will lose it. Mobile phones could be used, too, but they're just as easy to lose. Biometrics tap a validation mechanism that's harder to lose, but it's not clear whether people are willing to put up with a retina scan just to access their Netflix queues.

Got news?

News tips and suggestions are always welcome, so please send them along.

If you're interested in learning more about the payment development space, check out PayPal X DevZone, a collaboration between O'Reilly and PayPal.


April 20 2011

Got an iPhone or 3G iPad? Apple is recording your moves

By Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden

Today at Where 2.0 Pete Warden and I will announce the discovery that your iPhone, and your 3G iPad, is regularly recording the position of your device into a hidden file. Ever since iOS 4 arrived, your device has been storing a long list of locations and time stamps. We're not sure why Apple is gathering this data, but it's clearly intentional, as the database is being restored across backups, and even device migrations.

iPhoneTracker screen
A visualization of iPhone location data. Click to enlarge.

The presence of this data on your iPhone, your iPad, and your backups has security and privacy implications. We've contacted Apple's Product Security team, but we haven't heard back.

What makes this issue worse is that the file is unencrypted and unprotected, and it's on any machine you've synched with your iOS device. It can also be easily accessed on the device itself if it falls into the wrong hands. Anybody with access to this file knows where you've been over the last year, since iOS 4 was released.

In the following video, we discuss how the file was discovered and take a look at the data contained in the file. Further details are posted below.

What information is being recorded?

All iPhones appear to log your location to a file called "consolidated.db." This contains latitude-longitude coordinates along with a timestamp. The coordinates aren't always exact, but they are pretty detailed. There can be tens of thousands of data points in this file, and it appears the collection started with iOS 4, so there's typically around a year's worth of information at this point. Our best guess is that the location is determined by cell-tower triangulation, and the timing of the recording is erratic, with a widely varying frequency of updates that may be triggered by traveling between cells or activity on the phone itself.

What are the implications of this location data?

The cell phone companies have always had this data, but it takes a court order to access it. Now this information is sitting in plain view, unprotected from the world. Beyond this, there is even more data that we have yet to look at in depth.

For example, in my own case I (Alasdair) discovered a list of hundreds of thousands of wireless access points that my iPhone has been in range of during the last year.

How can you look at your own data?

We have built an application that helps you look at your own data. It's available at along with the source code and deeper technical information.

What can you do about this?

As we note around the 20-minute mark in our video discussion, an immediate step you can take is to encrypt your backups through iTunes (click on your device within iTunes and then check "Encrypt iPhone Backup" under the "Options" area).


April 14 2011

ePayments Week: Android's predicted ascendance

Here's what caught my attention in the payment space this week.

In the future, half the world will be Android

Well, half the smart phone world, anyway. Gartner Research is predicting that Google's Android operating system will continue its drive to become the most popular mobile OS in the world and, by the end of 2012, could own about half the market. Windows' mobile will pick up share, too, more than doubling to about 11% over the same time. Where will all that market share come from? Gartner sees Symbian dropping like a rock as Nokia ports over to Windows. Perhaps more surprising, Mashable's Ben Parr noted with a tad of skepticism, is Gartner's prediction that Apple's iOS will peak this year and begin to dip by next.

Predictions are always a little sketchy, but there's no doubt Android is gaining share and significantly reshaping the smartphone and mobile markets by packaging its app-friendly platform onto inexpensive hardware. This week AT&T announced a prepaid smart phone, the LG Thrive, following the lead of Verizon, which began offering prepaid smart phones last autumn on RIM, WebOS and Android handsets. Google has also been working with telecom carriers to make buying apps from its marketplace as seamless as it is over at Apple's App Store. AT&T and Sprint will now add the app cost to your monthly bill, so no need for a credit card or even Google Checkout.

Where is it all heading? Gigaom's Om Malik talked with Juniper Networks chairman Pradeep Sindhu to get his thoughts. In a brief conversation that ranges from the IBM 360 to the cloud, Sindhu made the point that smartphones as platforms will not only place greater demands on the network but will also change the way we think about it, blurring the lines between what is mobile and what is web. For a more hands-on and tactical view of where it's going, developers might want to look at the sessions in the Android track at next month's Google Developer Conference, May 10-11, in San Francisco.

NFC in China

Bus and subway riders in China have already been using prepaid cards equipped with near-field communications (NFC) technology to pay for their rides. With the infrastructure to receive their payments already in place, it should be a relatively easy switch to put the NFC card inside their phones instead of their wallets. NFC World's Christopher Brown said that Watchdata, which produces both types of cards, has produced more than 3 million NFC SIMM cards for mobiles, complete with a little antenna that sticks out of the card slot. The third million shipped in the past four months, Brown noted, so the pace is quickening. China Telecom has distributed most of the cards, but competitor China Unicom is also trying out the phone cards, launching a program in Beijing that goes beyond transit into theaters, markets and restaurants.

No word on whether the external antenna is an annoyance. But we're pretty sure it's a temporary inconvenience since handsets in the not-too-distant future will probably put the NFC circuitry and its antenna inside the phone.

Where 2.0: 2011, being held April 19-21 in Santa Clara, Calif., will explore the intersection of location technologies and trends in software development, business strategies, and marketing.

Save 25% on registration with the code WHR11RAD

Quova's Location Developer Challenge wants to know: Where U At?

Quova, which offers ways to help websites know the locations of their visitors, is holding a Location Developer Challenge to promote its nascent developer program. If you have an idea for an interesting location-aware web app, or a fresh take on visualizing location data, take a look at the details. They'll be spurring on promising contestants with monthly spot bonuses of $500 and then sending the winner to the Future of Web Apps conference in Las Vegas June 27-29, to show off the winning app.

While much of the buzz around geolocation centers around mobile apps, Quova's business focuses on fraud detection and geographically targeted ads for website visitors from desktop and laptop browsers. "We're not a mobile play," said company spokeswoman LaurieAnne Lassek in a phone interview, "but the web is not going away." Quova draws on a database of 3 billion publicly available IP addresses, mostly in North America and Europe. It opened its API last November and is just beginning to build a developer program. Registering for the program gives you access to the API and up to 10,000 queries on their data. "When you start to monetize the product, we work out a revenue-sharing deal," Lassek said.

Note: Quova will be at next week's Where 2.0 Conference in Santa Clara, Calif.

Got news?

News tips and suggestions are always welcome, so please send them along.

If you're interested in learning more about the payment development space, check out PayPal X DevZone, a collaboration between O'Reilly and PayPal.


3 big challenges in location development

With the goal of indexing the entire web by location, Fwix founder and Where 2.0 speaker Darian Shirazi (@darian314) has had to dig in to a host of location-based development issues. In the following interview, he discusses the biggest challenges in location and how Fwix is addressing them.

What are the most challenging aspects of location development?

Darian ShiraziDarian Shirazi: There are three really big challenges. The first is probably the least difficult of the three, and that's getting accurate real-time information around locations. Crawling the web in real-time is difficult, especially if you're analyzing millions of pieces of data. It's even difficult for a company like Google just because there's so much data out there. And in local, it's even more important for crawling to be done in real-time, because you need to know what's happening near you right now. That requires a distributed crawling system, and that's tough to build.

The second problem, the most difficult we've had to solve, is entity extraction. That's the process of taking a news article and figuring out what locations it mentions or what locations it's about. If you see an article that mentions five of the best restaurants in the Mission District, being able to analyze that content and note, for example, that "Hog 'N Rocks" is a restaurant on 19th and Mission, is really tough. That requires us to linguistically understand an entity and what is a pronoun and what isn't a pronoun. Then you get into all of these edge conditions where a restaurant like Hog 'N Rocks might be called "Hogs & Rocks" or "Hogs and Rocks" or "H 'N Rocks." You want to catch those entities to be able to say, "This article is about these restaurants and these lat/longs."

The third problem we've had to tackle is building a places taxonomy that you can match against. If you use SimpleGeo's API or Google Places' API, you're not going to get the detailed taxonomy required to match the identified entities. You won't be able to get the different spellings of certain restaurants, and you won't necessarily know that, colloquially, "Dom and Vinnie's Pizza Shop" is just called "Dom's." Being able to identify those against the taxonomy is quite difficult and requires structuring the data in a certain way, so that matching against aliases is done quickly.

Identifying and extracting entities, like restaurants, is a challenge for location developers.

How are you dealing with those challenges?

Darian Shirazi: We have a bunch of different taggers that we put into the system that we've worked through over time to determine which are good at identifying certain entities. Some taggers are very good at tagging cities, some are better at tagging businesses, and some are really good at identifying the difference between a person, place, or thing. So we have these quorum taggers that are being applied to the data to determine the validity of the tag or whether a tag gets detected.

The way that you test it is that you have a system that allows you to input hints, and you test the hint. The hints get put into a queue of other hints that we're testing. We run a regression test and then we see if that hint improved the tagging ability or made it worse. At this point, the process is really about moving the accuracy needle a quarter of a percent per week. That's just how this game goes. If you talk to the people at Google or Bing, they'll all say the same thing.

At Where 2.0 you'll be talking about an "open places database." What is that?

Darian Shirazi: A truly open database is a huge initiative, and something that we're working toward. I can't really give details as to exactly what it's going to be, but we're working with a few partners to come up with an open places database that is actually complete.

We think that an open places database is a lot more than just a list of places — it's a list of places and content, it's a list of places and the reviews associated with those businesses, it's the list of parks and the people that have checked in at those parks, etc. Additionally, an open places database, in our minds, is something that you can contribute to. We want users and developers and everyone to come back to us and say, "Dom and Vinnie's is really just called Dom's." We also want to be able to give information to people in any format. One of the things that we'll be allowing is if you contact us, we'll give you a data dump of our places database. We'll give you a full licensed copy of it, if you want it.

Where 2.0: 2011, being held April 19-21 in Santa Clara, Calif., will explore the intersection of location technologies and trends in software development, business strategies, and marketing.

Save 25% on registration with the code WHR11RAD

How do you see location technology evolving?

Darian Shirazi: Looking toward the future, I think augmented reality is going to be a big deal. I don't mean augmented reality in the sense of a game or in the sense of Yelp's Monocle, which is a small additive to their app to show reviews in the camera view. I think of augmented reality as you are at a location and you want to see the metadata about that location. I believe that when you have a phone or a location-enabled device, you should be able to get a sense for what's going on right there and a sense for the context. That's the key.

This interview was edited and condensed.


April 07 2011

ePayments Week: Tapping our hunger for Facebook Credits

Here's what caught my attention in the payment space this week.

IFeelGoods wants to help you get your Facebook Credit fix

IFeelGoodsThe winner of the Startup Showcase at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco last week wants to make a business based, in part, on their understanding that people want Facebook Credits but don't want to pay for them. IFeelGoods, which describes itself as a virtual goods platform, helps companies offer Facebook Credits as incentives for trying or buying.

Scott Silverman, co-founder and VP of marketing at IFeelGoods, says the offer is enticing because, like shipping, virtual currency is something that people want but don't necessarily feel is worth paying for. "You look at the demographics of people who are playing [social games on Facebook]," Silverman said in a phone interview, "and it's people who are controlling household spending." These social gamers start playing free games and "they get wrapped up in it, they want to advance, but it's uncomfortable for them to spend money [on Credits]." But if they can find a way to get those credits "off budget" as it were, they'll go for it.

To test their theory, IFeelGoods ran an A/B test of ads on Facebook — ads targeting shoppers, not necessarily gamers. One ad offered $5 off a purchase at an Internet shoe retailer and an identical second ad offered 50 Facebook Credits, worth the same cash value. Silverman says the clickthrough rate was double on the ads that offered credits. Their theory: when presented with a chance to earn credits for doing something they would do anyway (buy shoes), gamers grab them.

These kinds of offers are sure to become widespread as Facebook finds more opportunities, beyond social games, for members to buy or rent things with Credits. Last month Facebook dipped a toe in the movie rental business in a deal with Warner Brothers that offered a stream of 2008's "The Dark Knight" available for 30 credits ($3).

If you're wondering how far this can go, read Venessa Miemis' thoughtful piece, "The Bank of Facebook: Currency, Identity, and Reputation." One of the interesting ideas in her essay comes from Kevin Kelly, who points out that currency evolves from community, and that by creating a community of more than 500 million, Facebook has laid the groundwork for a commercial explosion. As that happens, IFeelGoods wants to be at the forefront, handing out the coupons.

Where 2.0: 2011, being held April 19-21 in Santa Clara, Calif., will explore the intersection of location technologies and trends in software development, business strategies, and marketing.

Save 25% on registration with the code WHR11RAD

American Express serves up mobile plays

A couple of announcements from American Express in recent weeks show that the number three credit card provider has been laying the groundwork for a major mobile push. In mid-March they demonstrated a new partnership with Foursquare that puts them at the forefront of geolocation commerce. AmEx cardholders attending SXSW were encouraged to link their card to their Foursquare accounts. Like all Foursquare users, they were sent special offers from nearby merchants. But when they checked into those offers, they were given an option to load their AmEx cards with the value of the deal, which they could redeem on checkout. It was an experiment, but one that combined two important trends in ways that many other companies have been trying to achieve: make an offer based on a person's location, then make it easy (and a bit enticing) for them to redeem the offer using their mobile phones.

A week later AmEx announced Serve, a new debit-based payment service that (among other things) lets you send funds to other people — just like PayPal. As we reported a couple weeks ago, Visa announced partnerships to do the same. Both represent yet another move to nibble away at services that once-upon-a-time were offered only by banks.

The Street's coverage of the new AmEx service said it had been in the works since January 2010 when AmEx paid $300 million for Revolution Money, the Steve-Case-backed "e-wallet" platform. To earn that money back, AmEx's Serve will carry transaction fees that some users might find a little steep compared to comparable services: free for six months, but after that $0.30 to load the card, a 2.9% fee on transactions, and $2 for an ATM withdrawal. Membership has its privileges, but they don't come cheap.

Isis plans a tap-and-pay transit trial

Isis, the joint venture between three (or maybe two?) telecoms, AT&T Mobility, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile, signed a deal to test a near-field communications (NFC) payment service with the Utah Transit Authority next year. Katie Deatsch at Internet Retailer writes that the Salt Lake City pilot will let transit riders carrying Isis-enabled NFC chips (which aren't in production yet) to tap and pay with their phones — something that subway riders in Chicago and Washington, D.C. can do today with chip-enabled cards. As we noted in our post on Isis in February, the consortium is aiming to get Isis chips into phones by spring 2012, so there's plenty of time to get the hardware in place.

Welcome to the real world, Boku

BokuBoku, which offers direct billing on mobile phone bills for digital and virtual goods, has teamed up with Telefonica O2 in Germany to offer its direct-billing service for real-world goods. Subscribers will be able to pay for goods (ranging from about $0.13 to $42) by entering their mobile number during checkout. The system sends a quick text to the phone, and hitting "reply" confirms the purchase. The amount is added to the subscriber's next mobile phone bill. It's a big step out into the world of real goods for Boku, which earlier this year received a vote of confidence from investors to the tune of $25 million. Also significant: It's a test of whether the mobile phone will work as a de facto credit and purchasing device for buyers who don't have (or don't choose to use) a credit card or bank account.

Got news?

News tips and suggestions are always welcome, so please send them along.

If you're interested in learning more about the payment development space, check out PayPal X DevZone, a collaboration between O'Reilly and PayPal.


March 15 2011

Geolocated images reveal a place's visual identity screenshot

The pictures of a place informs you about that location. They provide context. Bloom's brand-new uses Instagram's new API to do just that. creates a map out of geolocated images. If you squint you can see the six populated continents above.

Like any good map-based app, lets you explore at a local level. As you zoom in to an area new photos appear and sizes shift. Unsurprisingly, Austin looks a lot different from Seattle. The images and their relative sizes are selected based on interestingness.'s platform shows the Stamen roots of the founders. From their blog we learn that it:

... was written using ModestMap.js for the tile mapping and SimpleGeo for the location services and the labels are the Acetate labels from FortiusOne and Stamen.

The fact that an app this rich is all in JavaScript is just amazing. ModestMap.js allows for broader mobile browser support than a Flash-based mapping framework, and it supports multi-touch for a potential iPad version.

Bloom is a not-yet-funded startup headed up by technology veterans. The co-founders are Ben Cerveny (Frog Design, Ludicorp, and others) , Tom Carden (Stamen Design), Robert Hodgin (Barbarian Group — see some of his beautiful work at Flight 404 ), and Jesper Andersen (Trulia).

They recognize that we are all drowning in a sea of data. Their goal is to make interacting with that data a beautiful and pleasurable experience. The tools they'll create will (hopefully) be accessible to anyone, regardless of technical skill level. is not the only geo-related Instagram app. Instabam will show you photos near you (via is a great visualization tool and it captures the diversity of Instagram photos across the world. However, it's missing the activity of Instagram, which is is clocking ~6 photos per second. I want to see photos appear and change size as their interestingness score changes.

Tom Carden is speaking at Web 2.0 Expo SF in a session entitled "Data Visualization for Web Designers: You Already Know How to Do This." Save 20% on Web 2.0 Expo registration with the code WEBSF11RAD.

Where 2.0 — April 19-21 in Santa Clara, Calif. — will features lots of associated sessions, including Raffi Krikorian's workshop on "Realtime Geo Data." Save 25% on Where 2.0 registration with the code WHR11RAD.

February 24 2011

Vorratsdatenspeicherung anschaulich

Malte Spitz, Mitglied des Bundesvorstands der Grünen, hat seinen Mobilfunkprovider auf Herausgabe der zu seiner Person nach den Regeln der Vorratsdatenspeicherung gespeicherten Daten verklagt. Geliefert wurden ihm schließlich 35.000 (!) Datensätze, die ein fast lückenloses Bewegungsprofil ergeben. Für den Zeitraum von Ende August 2009 bis Ende Februar 2010 wurden diese Daten von ZEIT-Online umgesetzt und mit im Netz verfügbaren Informationen (aus Twitter oder seinem Blog) zu Maltes Person verküpft. Man kann damit praktisch minutiös nachvollziehen, wo Malte Spitz sich gerade aufgehalten hat.

Wer bislang noch nicht verstanden hat, warum die Vorratsdatenspeicherung so bedenklich ist, bekommt hier eine äußerst anschauliche und erschreckende Begründung geliefert.

February 03 2011

ePayments Week: How big a bite will Apple take?

Here's what caught my attention in the payment space this week.

How big a bite will Apple take out of the mobile commerce market?

ePayments WeekWith the consensus growing that Apple will probably introduce contactless payment (using NFC technology) soon — most likely with iPhone 5's release this summer — we're all wondering how big a deal that's going to be. Gartner analyst Avivah Litan, quoted in Computerworld, suspects that it will be hugely disruptive since it could empower Apple to let its 160 million iTunes customers bypass the credit card companies. Currently, iTunes customers link credit cards to their accounts, but Apple could eventually encourage customers to link directly to their bank accounts (as PayPal has been doing), thus cutting the credit card companies out of the fun. Keep in mind, iTunes has about twice as many members as PayPal's 81 million.

On the other hand, Apple's move into mobile commerce could create opportunities for banks and credit card companies, according to Andrew Johnson in American Banker. He quotes Richard Doherty, research director of Envisioneering Group: "Apple's probably someone you want to work with than try to fend off ... They do touch tens of millions of Americans, hundreds of millions of people around the world." The piece points out the dangers of fragmentation, with certain retailers being "handcuffed" to certain phone operating systems, depending on the hardware they buy to handle transactions at the register. (Some of us remember similar warnings to Apple in early iPod/iTunes days about the dangers of going it alone on hardware and digital music standards, suggesting Apple should join in with recording industry standards. We all know how that turned out.)

Apple's ability to shape a winning platform all on its own is part of the point in Drew Sievers' blog on MFoundry about Apple's potential to make a bigger impact than simply enabling phone purchases. Sievers reminds us how refreshing and unique purchases are at Apple's retail outlets and wonders why they don't offer their point-of-sale (POS) solution to other retailers. Indeed, other retailers already use the same hardware that the Apple Store does, but the software and, more importantly, the sales training that accompany it are Apple's. Apple's stores are famously profitable per square foot. Transferring its whole solution (hardware, software, training, and t-shirted hipsters) to other retailers could be revolutionary, getting clerks out from behind the register and in front of the wavering customer.

The walled gardens dictate coin of the realm

Facebook recently notified its developer community that as of July 1, all social games on Facebook need to include the ability to process payments with Facebook Credits. Facebook promotes Credits as a currency to its game developers on the basis that using them is economical (the system to deploy them is already in place) and it increases usage (perhaps because credits don't feel like real money to people using them?). But Facebook takes a 30% cut of transactions completed with Facebook Credits, which feels like a serious vig.

Facebook isn't the only walled garden that's tightening the rules on what type of coin visitors to the realm can use. The Wall Street Journal reported that in the same week that Apple rejected a digital book application from Sony it tightened the rules on how publishers can collect payment. Journal blogger Russell Adams reported that digital magazine publisher Zinio had received notice that newspaper and magazine apps would need to handle transactions through iTunes rather than an alternate system. Apparently, Zinio already does this, so their system won't change. But other publishers, like the Journal, may need to change the way they bill for content, with Apple taking a cut.

At the Strata Conference: "Why are consumers comfortable telling us where they are?"

Last week, ahead of Data Privacy Day, Microsoft released results of a survey finding a wide gap between the percentage of consumers who think location services are valuable (94%) and those who are, nonetheless, wary about saying where they are (52%). Even so, that means nearly half of those surveyed weren't concerned about sharing that data. That seems a big shift from only a few years ago when people were nervous about giving their real name on the Internet. So I asked some of the people at this week's O'Reilly Strata conference whether they thought there had been a shift in the way consumers view the trade-off of services for privacy.

Alistair Croll, an analyst and partner at Bitcurrent and one of Strata's co-chairs, suggested that consumers' decisions to be more comfortable sharing data was a rational economic choice based on the sense that you get more for it than you used to. "Ten years ago, there wasn't a lot of upside to giving out your personal data," he said. But sharing that data today returns information that helps you lead a more effective life, whether that's driving directions or restaurant locations.

Hilary Mason, a computer science professor working with, added that there are network effects to this value as more people share their locations: "I get better recommendations, I get ambient awareness of people I haven't seen in a while. The network effects of being open begin to outweigh the benefits of not being open."

Some wondered if the missing link here was simply more transparency about where your data was going and who else was using it for what types of purpose. But Tim O'Reilly challenged that notion. "If you had access to that information, what would you do differently? I don't think it would actually change our behavior," he said. "I think the thing to do is to figure out what's bad — what's creepy, if you will — and then punish it when that happens." In other words, whether lured or spurred to it, consumers are heading down a path to reveal more and more of their personal data — at least until some "data apocalypse," as Kroll put it, comes along and causes us to rethink our extroversion.

Got news?

News tips and suggestions are always welcome, so please send them along.

If you're interested in learning more about the payment development space, check out PayPal X DevZone, a collaboration between O'Reilly and PayPal.


January 27 2011

The "dying craft" of data on discs

To prepare for next week's Strata Conference, we're continuing our series of conversations with innovators working with big data and analytics. Today, we hear from Ian White, the CEO of Urban Mapping.

Mapfluence, one of Urban Mapping's products, is a spacial database platform that aggregates data from multiple sources to deliver geographic insights to clients. GIS services online are not a completely new idea, but White said the leading players haven't "risen to the occasion." That's left open some new opportunities, particularly at the lower end of the market. Whereas traditional GIS services still often deliver data by mailing out a CD-ROM or through proprietary client-server systems, Urban Mapping is one of several companies that have updated the model to work through the browser. Their key selling point, White said, is a wider range of licensing levels that allow it to support smaller clients as well as the larger ones.

Geographic data is increasingly free, but the value proposition for companies like Urban Mapping lies in the intelligence behind the data, and the organization that makes it accessible. "We're in a phase now where we're aggregating a lot of high-value data," White said. "The next phase is to offer tools to editorially say what you want."

Urban Mapping aims to provide the domain expertise on the demographic datasets it works with, freeing clients up to focus on the intelligence revealed by the data. "A developer might spend a lot of time looking through a data catalog to find a column name. If, for example, the developer is making an application for commercial real estate and they want demographic information, they might wonder which one of 1,500 different indicators they want." Delivering the right one is obviously of a higher value than delivering a list of all 1,500. "That saves an enormous amount of time."

To achieve those time savings, Urban Mapping considers the end users and their needs when they source data. As they design the architecture around it, they think about three layers: the design layer, the application layer, and the user interface layer atop that. "We look to understand the user's ultimate purpose and then work back from there," White said, as they organize tables, add metadata, and make sure data is accessible to technical and non-technical users efficiently.

"The notion of receiving a CD in the mail, opening it, reading the manual, it's kind of a dying craft," White said. "It's unfortunate that a lot of companies have built processes around having people on staff to do this kind of work. We can effectively allow those people to work in a higher-value area of the business."

You'll find the full interview in the following video:

Strata: Making Data Work, being held Feb. 1-3, 2011 in Santa Clara, Calif., will focus on the business and practice of data. The conference will provide three days of training, breakout sessions, and plenary discussions -- along with an Executive Summit, a Sponsor Pavilion, and other events showcasing the new data ecosystem.

Save 30% off registration with the code STR11RAD


January 25 2011

New geolocation app connects citizen first responders to heart attack victims

Update below from Tim O'Reilly, who attended the announcement.

Today the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District (SRVFPD) in California is launching an iPhone app that will dispatch trained citizens to help others in cardiac emergencies. The new app, available at, is the latest evolution of the role of citizens as sensors, where resources and information are connected to those who need it most in the moment.

The FireDepartment app is also an important example of Gov 2.0, where a forward-looking organization created a platform for citizens to help each another in crises and planned to make the underlying code available for civic developers to improve on. Given context and information, trained citizens in San Ramon will now be able to do more than alert authorities and share information: they can act to save lives.

FireDepartment app

"Everyone knows that mobile devices are changing the way we live and work," said Tim O'Reilly in an email. "By providing some critical communications, location-awareness, and alert infrastructure, the application lets citizens closest to a life-threatening emergency be of help before official resources arrive.  The creators of this application have moved beyond the real-time Web to the right time Web."

At the outset, the iPhone application will only be in use in the San Ramon district. That will likely change given the support from the first responder and technology community. It directly relates to one of the leading causes of death in the United States. "Nation-wide, we have over 300,000 people dying from cardiac arrest every year," said Richard Price, fire chief at SRVPD. "This app will help put rescuers where they are and get automatic electronic defibrillators off the wall."

Currently, Price says that there's less than an 8 percent chance of survival if someone goes into cardiac arrest on the street. "With a cardiac arrest, you only get about 10 minutes to help," he said. "On average, it takes 7 minutes for first responders from a 911 call to arrive. The reason many people are dying is because of that difference."

This FireDepartment application will empower citizens to bridge that critical gap of time before paramedics arrive and give them access to an essential tool: an automatic electronic defibrillator (AED). When an AED is used within the first 10 minutes, survival rates rise to nearly 80 percent, said Price. This new app could help to improve that survival rate by alerting a trained citizen to a crisis nearby and showing them where to go to get an AED. According to Price, AEDs are currently taken off the wall in 5 percent of cases. The app also includes access to the radio band where first responders coordinate response.

FireDepartment app

The mechanism behind the application relies on both human judgment and automated software. After a trained 911 dispatcher inputs certain codes from a call, the software automatically sends a push notification to all of the people with the app in the jurisdiction. Citizens that have downloaded the app get a text alert pushed to them when there's a nearby incident that fits the cardiac arrest profile.

The fire departments don't know who a given citizen is, said Price, only that they've opted in repeatedly and indicated that they are CPR-certified. "We use the long Apple ID and only track in our jurisdiction. We start tracking any phone that's running the app that's in our district." Eventually, this may develop into a multi-jurisdictional client where citizens could use a configuration screen to toggle locations on and off. Opening the smartphone then brings the user to a map with the location of the incident, the nearest automatic electronic defibrillator (AED) and the citizen's current position.

This move to share the code is an important precedent in the first responder community and has earned support from national leaders. WorkDay, a software company that's donating development and community efforts to support the app, has committed resources to help other municipalities get the application. "With the creative environment and innovation of a Silicon Valley start up, this municipal fire department has accomplished a feat previously unthinkable," said Petros Dermetzis, vice president of development at Workday, in a prepared statement. "They should be recognized for their significant achievement and their general public license distribution plans."

In a follow-up email, Dermetzis said that WorkDay developers have volunteered to get the app running on more platforms, including Android and BlackBerry.

The San Ramon fire department, which developed the app in-house, released a demo of the app:

Here's Tim O'Reilly's report from the event:

I was at the release event for this app. There are a number reasons I'm interested in it:

1. It's a real "scratch your own itch" app. It was developed after the San Ramon fire chief had the horrendous experience of sitting at lunch with his team (including a paramedic) only to discover that next door someone had been dying of a heart attack. He didn't learn of it till the fire truck pulled up, siren blaring. He realized the need for an alert system that would reach out to the mobile phone of anyone trained in CPR who is nearby. Hence this app. Now, when an ambulance or fire truck is dispatched to help a heart attack victim, the same dispatch is sent to the app, which checks to see if the user is nearby to the person in crisis. In addition, the app shows the location of the nearest AED (defibrillator).

2. It's a great example of what I call "government as a platform." That is, the Fire Department has built infrastructure that helps citizens to help each other. There are 1.2 million firefighters in the US. But there are 3 million additional citizens who are trained in CPR (and many more who could be); if this app could be made available nationwide, it could potentially save many more of the 300,000 people who die of a heart attack each year in the US (and many more around the world.)

3. There's a real challenge, though. While San Ramon has built a tool that works well for their purposes, and has evangelized it well to their local citizens (22,000 people already carry a previous version of the app, which lets citizens report or follow other kinds of emergencies), it needs to spread to other fire districts around the country to achieve its true goal. This made me think it might be a good fit for Civic Commons, which aims to be a mechanism by which cities can share their innovative projects with each other.

The app itself doesn't really need to be open sourced (though San Ramon is considering that.) Local resident Dave Duffield (of Peoplesoft fame) has committed developers from his new company, Workday, to develop Android and Blackberry versions. What does need to be open sourced is the back-end code that interfaces with the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems used by police and fire departments to respond to 911 requests. The San Ramon app interfaces with an Intergraph CAD system, but there are six other major vendors whose systems are in wide use. San Ramon and Workday are working to think through how best to package up the interface code so it can be ported to other systems.

There's also a crowdsourcing challenge. San Ramon spent significant effort to track down all the AEDs in their fire district. Unless other fire districts do the same, that particular part of the app won't work. It strikes me that there's an interesting crowdsourcing challenge here; perhaps citizens themselves can help to build the AED database. (It would be ideal if a company like Google or ESRI would try to build a national database and provide the data as an open web service, so that new fire districts would simply need to install the middleware for the app to work with their citizens.)

San Ramon is looking for other agencies that want to adopt the app.

September 02 2010

Toward a local syzygy: aligning deals, check-ins and places

Three significant trends in the local sector -- deals, check-ins, and place pages -- are on a bender and headed for an exciting convergence. When they meet we will see one of three things: a train wreck of incompatibility, an awkward confluence, or a very powerful alignment. I'm hoping for the latter, a sort of local syzygy, because a well-conceived orchestration of these trends will benefit the consumer and it has real potential to take us entirely out of the Yellow Pages era and into exciting, unexplored territory.

This is a two-part post: here I look in more detail at check-ins, deals, and place products (including, briefly, the adventurously named Facebook Places) with an eye to what might follow. In a following post I will discuss how we may more actively ease their convergence with linked data and some basic adherence to extant standards, specifically how these efforts will affect the local consumer.

Place pages and check-ins

The check-in is hardly the apogee of the local consumer experience but it works, and this is what is most important about any product. However successful it is now, the check-in will remain an interim solution for identifying long-term customer/business affinities and physical point of presence. So what's next?

I've written about check-ins previously: since then, Facebook has thrown its hat into the ring with their own place/check-in product, offering little feature distinction outside the problematic ability to check-in your friends on their behalf . Thanks to Facebook, the "Ferris Bueller Problem" -- in which a friend checks you into (say) the Von Steuben Day Parade when you are officially at home, ill -- may soon find its way into mainstream parlance. Expect a rise in just-for-larks in absentia check-ins to the local "gentlemen's club" and similar places of sophomoric amusement.

More interestingly, casual requests for a similar product from LinkedIn, and the introduction of a third-party check-in offering for Twitter demonstrate that geo and social products are becoming more integrated in the mind of the consumer, and corporate product strategies: Greg Sterling remarked on this trend recently in's new eat, play, live marketing campaign which attempts to transform the brand from its staid origins into "a lifestyle guide that also happens to feature contractors and plumbers." He is spot-on: some lines of business will not fit within the check-in model, but they nonetheless must be accommodated in any successful business-to-consumer product.

I have no desire to see another check-in clone arrive anytime soon. Jeff Holden, the founder of Whrrl, recently noted that the check-in will shortly be a commodity, and Foursquare's Dennis Crowley believes it already is. If you are an entrepreneur or developer thinking of building a new check-in service, please don't. Instead, consider some of the more exciting challenges that provide real consumer benefit:

  • Divorce the business from user authentication and social network: Social/local apps are entirely insular: you must be a Foursquare user using a Foursquare app (or the Foursquare API) to check into a Foursquare venue. I can see why this is, but it need not be. For example, consider an alternative platform where users supply instead an authenticated OpenID and an hcard. Authenticated user-to-venue relationships could be exposed across multiple social networks under the user's control, and the access control list could even accommodate attribute criteria such as place type or business category. This is not simple aggregation or shimming, but a lower-level, cross-platform integration.
  • Auto check-in: Manual check-ins are so 2009. Instead, think toward the endpoint where a geo-commercial footprint will be created automatically as an artifact of our day-to-day activities, should we wish it. The first steps in this direction will be toward improving the consumer's retail experience. Shopkick is effectively an auto check-in service. Other efforts toward this end will include credit-card geo traces, perhaps combined with a "local favorites" list used to prescribe which businesses may be checked into automatically. There are critical privacy implications here, so this footprint must be controlled by users, and employed by small and medium businesses (SMBs) to engage their customers on their own terms -- offering deals and events rather than advertising. As sharing your location with others becomes more codified, it will place demands on forthcoming products and start-ups that expose this under very granular, controlled conditions. This includes timestamps, geofences, disparate social networks, and leveraged venue classification.
  • Micro beacons: Expect over the next two years a bloom of micro-positioning products: sensor-and-platform combinations that assist with indoor navigation (malls), determining when a user is genuinely "in store," and guiding the consumer directly to a product on-shelf. Shopkick's iPhone product uses the device's microphone (simple, clever) to do this, but "Bluetooth beaconing" and QR codes are other low-energy, low-hassle options. We shall see both passive and active implementations to assist with the auto check-in and location disambiguation, depending on the particular use case.

Advances along these tracks should obviate the check-in as we know it today. This is a good thing -- check-ins are something to get over, an intermediate solution to tolerate until we have something that works better. Foursquare certainly knows this. The excitement -- for Foursquare's business and users -- lies wholly in their ability to deliver utility, novelty, and serendipity beyond the check-in.

Get it here: the deal

Groupon's $134 million series C funding in April and its estimated $1.34 billion valuation woke investors and entrepreneurs to the monetary value of group buying, and local deals more generally. There are now hundreds of variants and multiple aggregators, while "Groupon clone scripts" can be purchased (caveat emptor) from any number of freelance developer sites.

Groupon and its ilk tend to get bundled under the "group buying" or less-apt "social couponing" monikers, but -- in regards to Groupon certainly -- there's little that's actively social about the products. The less charitable may argue that Groupon's success is due as much to the severity of discounts on offer. However, Groupon and others have raised awareness that advertising is no longer the only solution. Specifically, SMBs are slowly gaining access to tools to engage their customers on mutually favorable terms. Examples:

  • Just-in-time delivery: Businesses increasingly have the ability to deliver discounts, incentives, and upsells to consumers in a highly relevant, just-in-time manner. Think of services that provide attractive discounts when tables are open at a restaurant, when spare inventory is available, or the business simply requires immediate revenue to help with cashflow. These new approaches secure short-term, incremental revenue for the business and offer great value to the user. Win-win.
  • Topical content: Most of these products now deliver deals based on city and zip code with little accommodation for either personal preferences or current location. Expect "relevance" to become the new watchword in deal and coupon delivery. Relevance will be obtained via platforms that exploit an accessible selection of local business favorites: Facebook is in a position to deliver, as is Hunch local, or my former shop, LikeList.
  • Coupon organizers: Digital deals are big, and will become only more common as delivery channels are improved. Jim Moran, co-founder of daily deal aggregator Yipit, records more than 100 companies offering deals in the U.S. alone, most recently Yelp. With these numbers, digital deals threaten to become as unmanageable as their hardcopy equivalents. In the same way that local favorites will assist in filtering the signal from the noise in the forthcoming local clamor, I would expect that intelligent, digital coupon wallets will be employed to remind or introduce users to deals that are relevant to their immediate location and circumstance. One coupon vendor called Savings Sidekick (apparently not related to the Shopkick iphone app) is doing something similar by using the tip feature in Foursquare to remind users of nearby deals from their coupon books. This particular implementation is as interesting as it could be annoying.

Part 1 wrap

Local is huge and only getting bigger. As a litmus, Borrell's recent ad forecast notes that "local online advertising should grow by almost 18% [...] to $16.1 billion, in 2011." Money follows money: we can expect further me-too products around deals, check-ins, and place products, but there is huge scope for investment into products that contribute genuine value to the consumer experience and enhance SMBs' ability to connect to their customers.

Much of this will take place at the data and platform levels. In my next post I'll take a look at how linked data might help cross-platform integration, and join deals, check-ins and place pages to the benefit of the consumer.


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