*mashup Event: Location: It’s moving on….

Perhaps somewhat ironically, finding the mashup event on location was difficult, even with a smart phone , which brought out some of the pros and cons of using location.It was raining hard so rather than juggle my umbrella and my phone I had a quick look at the map on my phone before I got out of the tube station at Aldgate then didn’t refer to it until I was lost.

Onto the meeting itself and it was the usual vibrant mix of entrepreneurs and those interested in the subject material.  That meant a lively meeting with plenty of audience questions and some thought provoking views from the panel, who included Vodafone, Yahoo, Broadsight and Rummmble (hope I have that name right).

Broad points that came out of it that we need to be considered in academia were, I think:-

  • It’s going to be the tools in the background such as OpenStreetMap and GeoNames that do the heavy lifting to make location successful (or not).  This could equally apply to the geo services we run in education such as the Geo suite from EDINA;
  • Audience is nothing without data.  It’s notable that the services that have started up and failed are the ones that provide a service and don’t get data from users.  I think this could apply to academia too.  Whilst services need to provide value to the user they also need to have some route to being sustainable and having data about what users are doing is going to be valuable in providing this but in a different way to the commercial sector.  Academic geo services are going to have to work out who wants this data and what they are going to do with it in a way that is acceptable to users (for more on this see below);
  • Where you have been is more important than where you are.  Linked to the above, location data is useful over time but it a lot less useful when you have a very slender slice of time over which it is measured (ie now!).  For academic use, I think this is particularly important to bear in mind as there is potential to use geo data for one application and then use the derived data set from usage for an entirely different application – that derived set is only going to get more useful as more time is spent on the original application.  As an example, many campuses are now using interactive campus maps that use geo services and pass back a user’s location.  Analysing this data could well be very useful for a range of applications such as understanding human searching behaviour in a physical environment or even analysing the physics of crowds;
  • It is vital to understand what the use case is for location and then bring the tools to the use case rather than bringing the use cases to the tools.  It sounds simple but how many times have we done the latter in higher education?
  • It is easier to move users to new technology such as geo-location in small steps than to move them in one big step.  Again, this seems a relatively simple assertion but it is immensely useful in terms of how geo-location is introduced.  Taking our campus map example above, it has a use case, the applications often sit on top of what students already have in terms of hardware and it is building on what they use already.  More complex geo apps can come over time;
  • Users are likely to want applications where they can see other users and yet they themselves can’t be seen.  There’s an obvious flaw in this but it’s something that I would imagine is going to be a particular problem in academia with concerns over privacy.  There needs to be some resolution to it, which could be aggregation via anonymisation or what seems to be becoming a standard approach of giving granular controls over who can see where you are and how accurately they can see where you are, ranging from city level right down to where the device they are carrying can locate the person;
  • The Janus face of location – there are good and bad sides to geolocation.  It’s likely the bad side is going to cause more press and raise more concerns.  Robmyhouse.com has been the most recent, where those who share their location on Foursquare have had that data used to show when they are away from their house.  There are obviously patterns that can be discerned here too.  However, the flip side is that any would-be criminal could far more effectively do this by simply sitting outside someone’s house so it’s important to appreciate the risks but not overstate them;
  • Privacy of data v usefulness of releasing it– as with all business events, there had to be an equation.  This one is going to prove important in academia.  There will be a sweet spot where the value of the information that users give away is balanced by the utility of what they get out of the application.  Again, a bit of a no-brainer but in the time of fEC and reduced spending then any application/service but particularly new ones are going to have to prove their worth to stay sustainable.  It will be interesting to see whether this is at a different place for academia and what the tradeoff is.  In a commercial world it is relatively easy to see that a large number of people are happy to give up, say, their shopping habits to well-known supermarkets for vouchers.  What will be the equivalent in HE and FE?
  • Smartphones aren’t it – we keep on talking about what devices apps are going to run on and what we have seen at JISC so far is that smartphones have been a popular platform.  However, only a small percentage of the population are going to have smartphones so what happens for the others?  That’s going to need some thought as to have equal access then it’s a question that needs resolving.  A thought provoking insight from the panel was to ask how many people carried an Oyster card then to reveal that it is a location device that benefits both you and the provider.  Could access cards in institutions prove to be the first location device that is broadly adopted on campus and what would they be used for?
  • Aggregators.  The panel argued that the iPhone is a good example of this.  Apple didn’t provide anything novel in the individual features; they’d all been seen before.  What was novel was how it was brought together.  There was a strong feeling that this moment was yet to happen for location but once it had happened it could have a large impact;
  • Beware what location data can be used for – the panel raised the point that Google carried out the StreetView project then shortly afterwards they ended their relationship with Teleatlas for map data.  Whilst location data can be obtained for one use it could prove to be useful elsewhere.  Perhaps something to bear in mind for academia working with commercial providers.