UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Social Location Sharing Services

Posted by Brian Kelly on 12 May 2010

Using MyTracks on my Mobile Phone

I recently took a holiday to visit Cyprus and used the opportunity of a walk in the Platres to try the My Tracks GPS application on my Android phone.

A map of a walk in the Platres, CyprusWhen I subsequently found a WiFi network I was able to upload the details to Google Maps. An image of the walk is shown (which, incidentally, makes me wonder if there is a GPS challenge for walks which look like a face :-)

As use of GPS tends to drain the battery I haven’t previously made much use of GPS applications on my phone previously. But as I wasn’t reliant on the phone while I was away I had the opportunity to test out this application (having first ensured that I switched off data traffic, so I wouldn’t have a large bill to pay for 3G usage whilst abroad!). The application worked well and what was particularly useful was the ease of uploading the map to My Maps in Google so I can now share this map with others.

But although I can this map with others it is not really a ‘social’ map. I can’t easily find out if my contacts have been on the same walk or have the opportunity to make new contacts with others who have been on the same walk.


Back in June 2008 I joined the location-based BrightKite service. However since then I have only posted 19 updates and a similar number of contacts.

Brightkite status updateIt seems that many of my contacts are also failing to make use of BrightKite – for example the last update made by Richard Akerman (Scilib) told us that he was “On the 12 bus“. That post was sent 10 months ago – and we though the bus services were  bad in the UK :-)

So although I have a BrightKite client on my iPod Touch the service has clearly failed to gain significant take-up, within my community, at least.


A walk on along the canal in Bath on Easter Monday reawakened my interest in location-based services which have a social aspect. So I downloaded the Gowalla application on my Android Phone. Later in the evening, while listening to a blues band in The Bell, I downloaded the Gowalla app on my iPod Touch and created my first location.

Location of the Claverton Rooms shown in GowallaAt work the next day I checked in from a number of locations on campus – my office in Wessex House, the Claverton Rooms, the Students Union building, the Fresh shop and the University Library.

You can the view of the Claverton Rooms in the accompanying image. You should note that the location was not accurate  initially, so I had to click on the edit button and drag the icon to the correct location.

However when I checked in from the University Library I found that this location had already been created so I used this location. However as can be seen from the image shown below, the Library is also located incorrectly – it is not to be found in the car park on the left of the image, but in the large building indicated on the far right.

University of Bath Library positioned incorrectly in Gowalla

A Use Case: Location-Based Services at Events

Social Networks Prove Useful at Events

Why would I wish to use a social location-based service such as Gowalla? I joined Twitter in March 2007 but my first significant use of the service took place a year later when I attended the Museums and the Web 2008 conference held in Montreal. I used Twitter to develop and grow social links e.g. “Off to Hilton to meet up with @dmje and any others at #mw2008 who fancy a drink & meal. Meet at reception ready to leave at 19.30.” and “@frankieroberto Heading over to conf hotel. Should be there in about 20 mins? Pub again? Any others at #mw2008 interested?“. As well as the obvious social dimension when you are away at a conference such contacts were also developed by the commentaries and discussions centred around the talks at the event.

I know others who were sceptical of the relevance of Twitter who subscribed at this conference and have continued to use the service.  So for me there are clear benefits to be gained from use of Social Web tools in the context of an event – a use case which, clearly is normally based around a location.

But rather than having the connections centred around an event hashtag, as is normally the case with Twitter, can we make use of location-based services to base connections around a location?

Use of RFID at Events

Such ideas are not new. My colleague Julian Cheal explored this idea at the Dev8D event in which he made use of RFID technologies – 300 RFID tags were distributed to Dev8D attendees who could check in by scanning the tag at RFID readers located near the entrance to the various rooms used during the event. As Julian has described on his blog there were some problems with the technologies, but the idea is worth exploring some more, I feel.

Use of a Popular Location-Based Service

Although it might be possible to develop a location-based service for use at a specific event, this approach is unlikely to be used afterwards.  My interest is in use of a service which could be used independently of the technologies provided by the host institution. So although services such as Campus-M seem to be growing in popularity (Campus-M is used at the University of Sheffield, which is the location for this year’s IWMW 2010 event)   this approach would appear to require usernames on the host institution’s Campus-M service. This is then not (currently) a generic solution.

Could we use a commercial service such as Gowalla in order to evaluate the potential of a social location-based service for use at an event? The benefits of using Gowalla would seem to be that it:

  • Provides a service which is free to use and which anyone can subscribe to.
  • Makes use of widely available mobile devices (clients are available for the iPhone, iPod Touch and Android devices in addition to the Web interface).
  • Allows registered users to check-in to a location and share comments with other in the same location.

I am aware that Gowalla has limitations (I can’t see how to send a private message, for example). However use of a tool that already exists and can easily be installed and tested does appear to provide advantages – if an institution is considering developing or procuring such a service, shouldn’t testing of such existing service form part of an initial evaluation process?

The Risks

Of course it is important to ensure that people are aware of the risks in using such services.  Sending a post saying “Missed train and on my own at an empty train station” might not be wise. However I’ll not talk further on the question of risks and approaches to risk management in this particular post other than to point out that, as described in a recent post about the JISC10 conference Ning social network, people are already prepared to share with others that fact that they are at a conference.


What limitations and challenges are there which need to be addressed?

I’ve already mentioned the problems with inaccurate locations. And if locations can be named and claimed by anyone, there will be the issue of not only incorrect but also misleading information. What will happen if somebody  locates the Vice-Chancellor’s office in a pub near the University?

There will also be the issue of the naming of locations used at events and the communication of such names to participants at such events.  Chris Gutteridge described the approaches he planned to take at the Dev8D events:

At Dev8D2010, at the end of February, I plan an experiment of assigning each location a hashtag, then publishing an electronic form of the schedule so the twitter can be merged into each session via location+program data.

And yes, at the event, there were posters on the walls with the hashtag identifying each of the rooms which provided a location-based identifier for use on Twitter, rather than the session-based hashtagging approach we took at IWMW 2009.

Perhaps on the day before the start of IWMW 2010 I should go around the various rooms to be used at the event, as well as the places to be used for accommodation and social events (including the Kelham Island Industrial Museum) and geo-locate these buildings with an appropriate name. But as the day before the start of IWMW 2010  coincides with another more important event I suspect I won’t have the time:-)

But perhaps the most important challenge is getting the community. In many respects BrightKite seems to have much potential. But it has failed, I feel, as it seems to have failed to gain a significant community. Sadly, it  never became  fashionable, as happened with Twitter. Perhaps a successful social location-based service will need the endorsement of a celebrity? And looking at Wikipedia’s List of British university chancellors and vice-chancellors (thanks to J4 and keithbrooke for the link) perhaps someone should approach Bill Bryson (the location aspect would be appropriate for a well-known travel writer).

But Seriously …

It is by no means certain that a Web 2.0 service such as Gowalla would be relevant for use in an institutional context. Perhaps such services (and I should also mention FourSquare, which I have also recently subscribed to)  will only be of interest in personal social contexts. But then again, didn’t we feel the same way about FaceBook, YouTube and iTunes as few years ago?

6 Responses to “Social Location Sharing Services”

  1. andypowe11 said

    Your last but one paragraph implies that Twitter only became successful once celebrities started using it. Whilst there might be a grain of truth in that from the perspective of the general population I don’t think it’s a position that holds much water in a general sense. It certainly doesn’t reflect my experience of Twitter for example.

    I think the geo-based apps you list above haven’t really taken off because the use-cases aren’t compelling enough. Finding people by where they are isn’t nearly as useful as finding people by what they are interested in – and in those cases where geo-location is important a simple “I’m at the pub” on Twitter usually suffices.

    FourSquare (which, oddly(?), you don’t mention) does seem to be gaining some ground, probably because of the ‘gaming’ aspects to it, but my suspicion is that its “you’ve been made mayor of X” will rapidly become the “you’ve been attacked by a zombie” of the geo-generation.

    • I’d agree that many early Twitter adopters, such as you and me, appreciated its benefits at an early stage. I don’t know, though, if Twitter would still be functioning if it had failed to gain a mass market. That was really the point I was trying to make.

      I’ve also installed FourSquare and agree that it is gaining some momentum. The point of my post was concerned mostly with the potential benefits and dangers in use of social location service rather than any specific service – both Gowalla and FourSquare have their limitations, not only the ‘you’ve been made mayor of X‘ approach they have taken to viral marketing but also the US vocabulary they use.

  2. Nicola McNee said

    You should have a look at Rallyup because it says you can direct message as well as public messsage on it,sort out privacy, include photo’s and microblog! I think its only available as an iPhone app at the moment though. Here’s the link to a review on

  3. […] Read Brian’s post about geo-location services in his blog. […]

  4. […] We will be providing an opportunity for delegates to  familiarise themselves with location-based sharing services such as FourSquare and Gowalla.  I will visit the main locations we will be using at Sheffield just before the event begins and geo-locate the main auditorium, the registration areas, the rooms used for the parallel sessions, the accommodation and some of the social venues – an idea I have described previously in  a post on Social Location Sharing Services. […]

  5. […] Read Brian’s post about geo-location services in his blog. […]

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: