Mobile Apps Don't Need A Location War. What We Need is Open Data.

Amid the unending din of posts, tweets and articles about South by Southwest Interactive, one thing became clear: mobile location apps are the next big thing. In one corner was Austin-based Gowalla, fighting on its own home turf. In the other was Foursquare, the NYC-based startup that many associate with the ‘check-in’ craze. But regardless of who wins, unless services like these open up their data, we all lose.

This sounds like a bigger deal than it actually is. If you ask people what these mobile check-in apps are about, many will say that they’re to let others know where you are. In the same way Twitter broadcasts what you’re doing or what you’re thinking, location apps tell the world where you’ve been.

While to many these seems ripe for both abuse and just pointless monotony, the services are growing rapidly. Gowalla just signed up tens of thousands of new users, while Foursquare has already hit 600,000 people using the service.

But to say that these apps are for narcissists who want to tell everyone about the happenings of their lives only tells half the story. After all, both Foursquare and Gowalla allow users to enter tips and information about the locations they visit.

Go to a bar where you know about a secret drink not on the menu, and you can enter it as a tip on Foursqaure. Similarly, on Gowalla, you can plan out a day for someone, recommending not only where someone should get a sandwich but the park they should eat it in and the coffee shop they should head to after. As more and more people use these services, more and more information about our cities and towns get pumped out, creating an incredible resource. Try it out. Use the service in any large North American city and you’ll quickly discover things you may not have heard of before.

But the problem is that, by and large, all that data remains among the users of these services. If you don’t want to sign up for them, it’s not easy to plow your way through all that stuff to get to what you want. As a result, we have the creation of things like FourWhere, which tries to collect all that information from Foursquare and put it together for anyone to access.

Yet the thing is, we shouldn’t need things like FourWhere. Instead, what should happen is that these services should open up and publish all this data and put it in an easily usable form for anyone, regardless of whether they’ve signed up for the service or not. It’s not as if it’s the data itself that is the draw; instead it’s the social aspect between friends that compels to use the sites and their mobile services. By cordoning off all that information, these companies are holding onto a goldmine of information that was created by their users, not themselves. To many, that could almost be called exploitation.

The point is, location apps provide an open resource for people who want to learn about and explore their city. Rather than just being about self-importance, the ability to write your own story about your own neighborhood and haunts allows people to speak about where they live in a new and exciting way. By putting walls up around that data, companies like Foursqaure and Gowalla are using coercive techniques to get people to sign up rather than embracing the openness and spirit of sharing that underpins the modern internet. And if anyone is concerned about the user winning, rather than these start-ups, then Foursquare and Gowalla? Open up your data.

Written by Navneet Alang

Navneet Alang is a technology-culture writer based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang
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