Last year's South By Southwest festival was a tipping point for location-based check-in services. I wrote about companies like Foursquare and Gowalla and the idea of "check-ins" in the article "Mobile Location, Location, Location at SXSW." This concept, then popular, has grown exponentially. Those companies have also been joined by the current leader in that space, Facebook Places. This year it was amazing to be at SXSW with a large early adopter crowd and be able to track friends and be aware of events via a mobile device in real time. But what about other, non "check-in" ideas?
Imagine a world where the apps on your mobile device knew not just where you were, but knew the context around your location—the weather, the time of day, the neighborhood, and more—and delivered customized information based on those factors. This year an even more potentially game-changing idea is the use of location awareness in any mobile application—providing a layer of information that's relevant in the context of your location, neighborhood, time of day, and more, at the time you use a tool.
At SXSW 2011 I spoke with the founders of SimpleGeo, a company providing this data. CEO Jay Adelson is most well known for co-founding Digg, Internet web studio Revision 3, and data center company Equinix. The company was the result of a brainstorm from the 2009 SXSW conference when co-founders Joe Stump and Matt Galligan thought about the idea of augmented reality games that could exist "on top" of the real world. Galligan told me he quickly figured out that games weren't his forte, but the location infrastructure required to create such a game would be valuable to a range of companies. In other words, he could build a database of place and location data that others could then innovate around.
Adelson says: "Application developers should be able to focus on creativity of their own products. Storage and scale is not what they should think about." Adds Galligan, who is chief strategy officer, "Four or five years ago, everyone was concerned about building social graphs [the connections between friends on networks]. Now it's just assumed that you can have someone log in via Twitter or Facebook and give you that information." SimpleGeo is working on a similar service for app developers now—so that location data about an area is assumed—and developers can just make what they need.
In fact, SimpleGeo is so passionate about the location data being available to all developers that their database of places is free to other developers. They'll make money by charging for use, and by allowing others to store data about these places that are unique to the service they're creating.
As an example, travel site Hipmunk uses the data from SimpleGeo as a local business information database. "We look up bars, restaurants, and nightclubs and then create our own "heat maps" based on SimpleGeo data and other data to determine where the items of interest in a city are located,' said Hipmunk co-founder and CEO Adam Goldstein. You can see this very clever filtering in its app (described in their blog) that helps searchers find the kind of hotel that also has the amenities and neighborhood atmosphere that makes them comfortable.
Adelson says: "The problem we're solving is, give us the coordinates of a device, we'll give you the data and make it relevant. We also want to provide some of this data free and unencumbered." SimpleGeo raised $10M in funding between seed money and Series A, and now has 24 employees. Its founders have an interesting take on a marketing strategy; Galligan reports they've been marketing the company to consumers and techies, rather than as an "infrastructure" play. They're working on a "Powered by SimpleGeo' effort to generate credibility for their service as well as the apps that work with them.
For small businesses just starting up, I think this trend in location awareness is important as it emphasizes the need to have a great online presence in places like Google Local and similar sites, so that companies like SimpleGeo will find you and include you in their database. Does the idea of a location database that leads customers to your business appeal to you? Do you have app ideas that need location? Let us know in the comments below.
Last updated: Mar 16, 2011
HOWARD GREENSTEIN is a social media strategist and evangelist, and president of the Harbrooke Group, which specializes in helping companies communicate with their customers using the latest Web technologies. @HowardGr