Location-based services may be a hard sell.

Google Latitude logo

Google Latitude, not overwhelmingly adopted

I’m working on a few concepts for integrating GPS locations received from mobile browsers into our mapping applications. One idea has been to employ the location of a student’s smartphone by placing them on the campus map and identifying the quickest route to their on-campus destination. While location-based services have been a hot topic for the past two years now, I’m still unsure of how readily the non-technical public will accept the concept. I still have GIS students that find the amount of data accessible to them intimidating and “scary.”

I came across this post regarding geolocation’s “spookiness.” This person, while he may not be (and probably isn’t) a GIS geek, is still technically capable of putting together a basic demo of the geolocation capabilities found in most modern browsers. If a somewhat technical person is unsettled by this, what will the technically clueless think?

Arthur C Clarke said that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and in regard to modern technology, I find that absolutely true. Just spend some time in front of a desktop computer with someone that has barely used the Internet. Wikipedia still fascinates individuals with its breadth and depth, as does Google Maps. But geolocation still has not been introduced to enough non-technical or non-GIS individuals that it is still foreign to the average netizen. How will our location-based services be perceived by the public? If presented poorly or without a clear explanation of privacy rights retained, will our smart web maps be seen as black magic?

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2 Responses to Location-based services may be a hard sell.

  1. scruss says:

    Depends how it’s controllable. It’s useful in myttc.ca, where it picks up your start location in Toronto for transit scheduling. It’s creepy in Google Latitude, where my last location I used was a major US city a few months ago, and then someone I know dropped me a note “seeing I was in town” much later.

  2. While the “spooky factor” is definitely real, there’s a whole other layer of location-based annoyance hiding underneath that could potentially be more destructive. For example, I returned home from a trip to SF a few weeks ago and all my Google local searches are _still_ based in the bay area. This frustration far outweighs the usefulness of geolocation. Unfortunately, there still doen’t seem to be a common set of best practices when it comes to location etiquette.

    We try to overcome that at myttc.ca is by making the process as unobtrusive as possible; no user input is required and we never block the UI. The first sign of user input aborts any geo-magic, and we only bother starting the location if the user hasn’t used the form within 20 minutes. This has produced what we feel is a “pretty good” experience which doesn’t negatively surprise the user, but I’m sure there’s room for improvement.

    As for the “spooky factor”, I suspect mobile apps like foursquare and even Google maps will help acclimatize users. If more apps are built in a polite manner, it may even drive users to expect location-awareness where appropriate.