Posts Tagged ‘foursquare’

You Were Here; Mapping The Places I’ve Been To According To Foursquare

Over the weekend I made another map. While I don’t think for one moment this one will be as wildly popular as my last map was, this one is just as satisfying and a whole lot more personal.

At 8.01 PM on the 11th. of October 2009 I checked into Sushi Tomi in Mountain View, California. This was my very first Foursquare check-in. Since then I’ve checked-in on this particular location based service a further 12,394 times. Each check-in has been at a place I’ve visited. As this is a location based service, each check-in comes with a longitude and latitude.

This sounded to me like an ideal candidate for a map. But how to go about making one?

Checkins - Global

I could have written some code to use the Foursquare API, but I’ve been running an instance of Aaron Cope‘s privatesquare for a couple of years now, which meant every check-in I’ve ever made, give or take the last 6 hours or so, is sitting comfortably in a MySQL database.

So I wrote some code to go through the database, extract each checkin and make a list of each place I’d checked into, the place’s coordinates, the place’s name and how many times I’d checked into that place. Armed with this information, I could then spit this out in GeoJSON format, which made making a map no more complicated than some mapping API JavaScript, in this case the Leaflet API. OK. There was some slight complication. I need to do some cleverness to make each checkin a CircleMarker, where the radius of the circle was proportional to the number of check-ins. Thankfully Mike Bostock’s D3 library does this with ease.

It’s not the most classy of visualisations. But I do like that the map shows me the global picture of where I’ve been over the last 4 or so years. As you zoom into the map, it’s fascinating to see the patterns of my movements in areas I seem to go to on a regular basis, such as the San Francisco Bay Area …

Checkins - Bay Area

… or Berlin …

Checkins - Berlin

… or even Dar Es Salaam …

Checkins - Dar Es Salaam

… as well as my journeys around my home country.

Checkins - UK

But there’s still a lot of things that the map doesn’t do.

The z-index, or stacking order, of the markers is based on each place’s coordinates; ideally this will be adjusted so that the larger markers, those with the most check-ins, stack underneath the smaller ones so they’re not obscured. I also want to add the ability to see some form of timeline and add some richer data about each place to the marker’s popups.

But for now, it does the job I set out to do and to make life easier, should you wish to do the same, you’ll find the source code up on GitHub.

What next? Well, now that I can download my Twitter history, I think all of my geotagged tweets are suitable candidates for some mapping …

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Not Your Average User Contributed Map

Today I contributed to a map. I did this yesterday as well. I even did this last week. In fact I’ve been doing this since the end of July 2009. As of right now I’ve done this 11,880 times. I’ll probably end up contributing to this map again later on today and will almost definitely do it again tomorrow.

But this isn’t your average user contributed or crowd sourced map. It’s not one of the usual suspects; it’s not OpenStreetMap, or Google MapMaker or Nokia MapCreator. It’s none of these, but it’s a map nonetheless and it looks like this.

London CheckIns

Most of my contributions are in the centre of the map and towards the South West corner. I’ve also contributed to this map in other places and it looks like this.

Berlin CheckIns

Here most of my contributions are in the centre with a few towards the North West corner. Maybe the maps will make a little more sense if I turn on an underlying labelled layer.

London Map

This is the map of the last three months on Foursquare in London.

Berlin Map

And this is the map of the last three months on Foursquare in Berlin.

Each dot is a check in and every time I’ve checked in, which is almost every day, I’ve contributed to this map. Now it’s not a strictly geographic map in the normal sense of the word, but each check in is a geographically accurate (subject to the GPS lock that someone’s smartphone has) affirmation that a place exists and that it’s important to someone.

It’s fascinating to see how the world looks when viewed by check ins alone, with the UK, Europe and North America’s coastlines standing out like a night-time satellite image when there’s no cloud cover.

World CheckIns

It’s definitely not your average user contributed map but it’s a map I helped make in a small way and will continue to do so; though I know of one person who probably disagrees with me.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Making Maps Underground

Warning. This post contains a sweeping generalisation. Yes, I know that Places are not just part of today’s digital maps; see the James Fee and Tyler Bell hangout The One Where Tyler Bell Defines Big Data as a proof point. But for the sake of this post, just assume that Places and maps are synonymous.

It’s never been easier to make a map. Correction. It’s never been easier to contribute to a map. Today we seem to be makingcontributing to maps everywhere, even underground, or should I say Underground?

To makecontribute to a map, you used to have to be a professional map maker, with easy access to an arsenal of surveying or an industrial grade GPS.

Then came the notion of community mapping. Be it OpenStreetMap, Navteq’s and Nokia’s Map Creator or Google’s Map Maker, anyone armed with a GPS enabled smartphone, hell, anyone without a GPS, could help make a map.

And now it seems, all you need to do to help make a map is to be somewhere unmapped with some form of internet access, be it a 3G or 4G cellular data connection, or a wifi connection. As part of the London 2012 Olympic Games, some London Underground stations (finally) got wifi access and sure enough, where wifi goes, so does mapping, even platforms on the London Underground.

With apologies to Steve Karmeinsky for exposing part of his Foursquare check-in history.

Written and posted from the Arcotel Velvet, Oranienburger Straße, Berlin (52.52602, 13.38834)

A Bipolar Attitude To Aerial And Satellite Imagery Plus Maps Fear, Uncertainty And Doubt

Maps and map imagery seem to be back in the news. Google’s recent map update and immense speculation about Apple’s “will they, won’t they” replacement for the current Google Maps app on iOS seems to be spilling over from the usual tech media into mainstream news.

Firstly, the UK’s Daily Telegraph, a “quality broadsheet” seems to have just discovered that today’s digital maps also have satellite imagery. It’s not entirely clear how this is news, let alone current news. Navteq has had satellite imagery as part of its’ maps since the mid 1980’s and Google has also included satellite imagery in Google Maps since the mid 2000’s. But linked to Apple’s recent acquisition of 3D imagery specialists C3, we’re told to anticipate a “private fleet of aeroplanes equipped with military standard cameras to produce 3D maps so accurate they could film people in their homes through skylights“. The middle market tabloid Daily Mail has also picked up on this story, running with the headline “Spies in the sky that no one will regulate“.

Yet only in January of this year, the Daily Mail published a series of extremely detailed aerial images under the headline “A nosey parker’s dream; Stunning aerial photographs show what’s going on in the world’s back gardens“. Apart from the slightly sensationalistic “nosey parker” reference, this six month old article seems to positively luxuriate in the high altitude photography. As Google’s Ed Parsons pithily points out, this is another case of “editorial integrity by the Daily Mail“.

Meanwhile, digital mapping provider TomTom, who acquired Tele Atlas in 2008 has produced what’s often described as a FUD piece (fear, uncertainty and doubt) on digital map data produced by OpenStreepMap. The article starts off well

“The concept of open source mapping is a very exciting one. As various technologies become more accessible, volunteer mappers can collect information and collaborate to produce shared maps. They’re cheap to make, licensing is often free or very low-cost, and users benefit from the knowledge of a large community of updaters.”

So far, so good. OSM has been gaining a lot of traction and attention over recent months as Nestoria, Apple (for iPhoto on the iPad), Wikipedia and Foursquare all adopted OSM maps to power their spatial visualisations. But not, it’s worth noting, to power turn-by-turn navigation applications. But according to TomTom, all is not well with this.

Despite the positives, recent studies have highlighted some major drawbacks of open source mapping, specifically with regard to safety, accuracy and reliability. In one particular instance, a leading open source map was compared against a professional TomTom map, and shown to have a third less residential road coverage and 16% less basic map attributes such as street names. Worse still, it blended pedestrian and car map geometry, and included ‘a high number of fields and forest trails’ classified as roads.

Interestingly, this view from TomTom clashes somewhat with a 2011 study comparing TomTom and OpenStreetMap in Germany which concluded that

“With a relative completeness comparison between the OSM database and TomTom’s commercial dataset, we proved that OSM provides 27% more data within Germany with regard to the total street network and route information for pedestrians.”

So why highlight the difference between OSM and TomTom data now? As TechDirt notes in its’ commentary on this topic

“The fact that TomTom has chosen to highlight this current deficiency in OpenStreetMap shows two things. First, that it is watching the open source alternative very closely, and secondly, that it is sufficiently worried by what it sees to start sowing some FUD in people’s minds. But as history has shown with both open source server software and open source encyclopaedias, once vendors of proprietary systems adopt such a tactic against up-and-coming free rivals, it’s a clear sign that it’s already too late to do anything about it, and that their days of undisputed dominance are numbered.”

Whether that’s a fair and accurate summary of this remains to be seen, but what this does prove it that just as I’ve been saying for the last two years that there is no one single authoriative source of Place data and there probably never will, so there is no one single authoriative map and likewise, there probably never will.

Without meaning to trivialise the adoption of OSM by Wikipedia, Foursquare et al, these maps are what might be termed map wallpaper; great for showing geographical and geospatial context for information. The high level of accuracy and internal data attributes needed to produce a turn-by-turn navigation system simply isn’t needed here. Which makes TomTom’s evaluation of OSM all the more puzzling.

Written and posted from the Click 6.0 Conference, Grand Millennium Hotel, Dubai (25.1010, 55.1777)

Check In, Get Acquired, Check Out. Farewell Gowalla

With the benefit of hindsight, it was probably inevitable but 5 years after the location based, check in social network we know as Gowalla launched and 3 months after they were acquired by Facebook, Gowalla is no more.

Despite launching in 2007, 2 years prior to Foursquare, Gowalla never seemed to be able to capture attention from either users or from the media in quite the same way as Foursquare. The similarities were many; both social networks used location as a key facet, allowed users to check in to locations they were at or near and to share those locations with other users and other social networks. But while Foursquare’s game mechanics of badges and Mayors seemed to hit the right note with users, Gowalla’s ill explained and ever morphing system of virtual items, spots and trips never seemed to make sense. No-one I’ve ever spoken to could explain exactly what the point of Gowalla was, whilst Foursquare’s mechanics were simplistic and easy to grasp.

After loosing ground to Foursquare, Gowalla tried to act less as a sole source of checkins and more as a central aggregator of the disparate checkins from itself, Foursquare, Facebook and Twitter, amongst others, but this move did little to slow Foursquare’s ascendancy.

And now, 3 months after they were acquired by Facebook in December 2011, both the Gowalla smartphone app and website started to announce

Thank you for going out with Gowalla. It was a pleasure to journey with you around the world. Download your check-ins, photos and lists here soon.

So long Gowalla. You were one of the first movers in the so called check-in economy. It was fun while it lasted. Only time will tell whether Foursquare’s seemingly unbeatable lead will continue.

Wikipedia’s Gowalla entry has the final word on the subject.

Gowalla was a location-based social network

The past tense says it all.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Foursquare Goes With OpenStreetMap; On The Web

In web and location circles, much has been made of Foursquare’s recent “little announcement” of the location based, check-in, company’s decision to oust Google Maps and instead to go with OpenStreetMap data, by way of MapBox.

From reading a lot of the coverage you’d be forgiven for thinking that Foursquare has completely severed ties with Google’s mapping APIs, but this isn’t quite the story. As ReadWriteWeb notes in the last paragraph of its coverage, “Foursquare’s iPhone and Android apps won’t be affected” as the move is for Foursquare’s home on the web,, only.

Indeed, the current set of Foursquare smartphone apps continue to use a variety of mapping platforms. On Android and on iOS, it’s still Google Maps, not unsurprisingly given Android is effectively a Google mobile OS, and Google is still Apple’s mapping platform of choice, for now at least.

On Blackberry it’s also business as usual for Google Maps, whilst on Symbian, it’s Nokia’s mapping platform and on Windows Phone 7 it’s (currently) the Bing mapping platform.

So while this move is great news for both the OpenStreetMap community and for MapBox and, as ReadWriteWeb notes, “when you use Foursquare Explore on the Web to search for places, you’ll be taking eyeballs away from Google“, this is a move that affects Foursquare’s web presence only, not their mobile apps. Given that in order to actually use Foursquare effectively, in other words, to check-in, you need to be on a smartphone, I wonder how many eyeballs will actually be taken away from Google. Furthermore, whilst those in the location industry are looking at this keenly, I have to wonder how many users of Foursquare will actually notice the change on the web.

For Foursquare on the web this is probably a smart move and for most users of the Foursquare website, OpenStreetMap data is, as Muki Haklay noted in a paper published in 20101, “good enough“.

But not good enough apparently for some Foursquare users, who are fairly outspoken about blank or incomplete maps on the comments to Foursquare’s announcement blog post.

It would be good to think that Foursquare’s use of OpenStreetMap data will encourage their users to contribute to the underlying open spatial data set that is OSM; after all, all you really need is a GPS device, which is what most smartphones are these days. The optimist in me hopes that this will be the case. The pessimist in me, or maybe it’s the realist in me, tempers that hope with the realisation that Foursquare still makes the address of a new Place optional, that a geocode from a GPS device probably isn’t enough and that most Foursquare users neither know or care about the underlying map, caring far more about getting to the top of the leaderboard, becoming Mayor and earning badges.

Time alone will tell whether my optimistic side is right.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Another Category Of Place You Really Don’t Want To Check In To

There are some places you really don’t want to check into using one of the many location based social networks. There’s a variety of suggestions of this nature on the web including funeral homes, an ex-partner’s house, jail or the same bar (every night). It now seems you can add military bases (when you’re in a war zone) to the list.

Camp Phoenix

A recent report highlighted concerns that the US Air Force has over troops using location based apps, with the Air Force posting a warning on an internal web site on the matter.

“All Airmen must understand the implications of using location-based services,” said a message on the internal Air Force network.
The features, such as Facebook’s ‘Check-in,’ Foursquare, Gowalla, and Loopt “allow individuals with a smartphone to easily tell their friends their location,” it said.
“Careless use of these services by Airmen can have devastating operations security and privacy implications,” said the message, which was posted on November 5, according to spokesman Major Chad Steffey.

The age old adage about Military Intelligence being an oxymoron springs to mind.

Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office in Schönhauser Allee, Berlin (52.5308072, 13.4108176)

Quantity Or Quality? The Problem Of Junk POIs

In my recent talk to the British Computer Society’s Geospatial Specialist Group, I touched on the “race to own the Place Space“. While the more traditional geographic data providers, such as Navteq and Tele Atlas are working away adding Points Of Interest to their data sets, it’s the smaller, social location startups, that are getting the most attention and media coverage. With their apps running on smartphone hardware, Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places, amongst others, are using crowd sourcing techniques to build a large data set of their own.

For them to do this, the barriers to entry have to be very low. Ask a user for too much information and you’ll substantially reduce the number of Places that get created; and thereby hangs the biggest challenge for these data sets. Both the companies and their users want the Holy Grail of data, quantity and quality. But the lower the barriers to entry, the more quality suffers, unless there’s a dedicated attempt to manage and clean up the resultant data set.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Foursquare entry for the BCS itself. According to the BCS website, the London HQ of the UK’s Chartered Institude for IT is at The Davidson Building, 5 Southampton Street, London, WC2E 7HA. Now compare that to Foursquare, which lists BCS HQ LONDON as 5 south hompton road, The strand, london, london uk. Complete with interesting use of capitalisation. That’s the first problem.

Foursquare helpfully shows this on a map but evidently uses the provided address information as opposed to any associated geo-coordinate that was gleaned from the onboard GPS on whichever smartphone was used to create this “place“. Google has evidently tried to interpret south hompton road and displays the map at the first entry that Google’s reverse geocoder returns, which is 5 Hampton Road, in Hampton Hill. That’s not Covent Garden. That’s not even Central London. That’s way out in the suburbs of Richmond-upon-Thames. That’s the second problem.

But there’s also more than one entry in Foursquare for the BCS in London which highlights the third problem; large amounts of duplicate Places created by users either unwilling to search too closely for an existing Place or who are trying to subvert the gaming aspect to social location apps in order to gain points or recognition in the community for number of Places created, number of Mayorships gained and so on.

Quantity? Yes. Quality? Sadly no. Foursquare are reliant on their user community to clear up their data and as this example shows, that’s not always an effective strategy. As an industry we may be building a massive Place based view of the world but we’ve a long way to go before we can rely on data produced in this manner.

A geographic nod of the hat must go to Harry Wood for spotting this classic example of a “junk POI“; I’m not singling Foursquare out for any particular opprobrium here by the way, all of the social location data sets have their own howlers, as do the commercial POI data sets, ready and waiting for people to stumble across.

Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office in Berlin (52.53105, 13.38521)

More Location Tracking; This Time From Foursquare

Back in March of this year I wrote about deliberately tracking my journey by using Google’s Latitude and unexpectedly tracking the same journey by looking at the history of my Foursquare and Gowalla check-ins.

By using the history function from Google Latitude I was able to put together a quick and dirty visualisation of the locations I’d been to but my check-in history added not only the location but also the place that was at each location.

During last week’s Geo-Loco conference in San Francisco, Fred Wilson (no, not the guy from the B-52’s) mentioned that you could feed your Foursquare check-in history into Google Maps and produce another quick and dirty visualisation of not only the places you’d checked into but also where those places were.

Simply login to your Foursquare account and visit your feeds page at and copy the RSS check-in history link but don’t click on the link. Open up Google Maps and paste in the link and add ?count=200 to the end of the URL to make Foursquare return a reasonable amount of check-ins. Hey presto, one instant map of your check-ins, which shows me that I’ve been checking in in the Bay Area in the USA, in and around London in the UK and in and around Berlin in Germany. Not that I didn’t know this already but it’s always good to see this visualised on a map.

Foursquare History - Global

Of course, Google Maps is a full slippy maps implementation, so I can click, drag and zoom in to see my check-ins from the Geo-Loco conference in San Francisco in the Bay Area, south through Palo Alto to San Jose.

Foursquare History - Bay Area

I can also jump across the Atlantic Ocean, straight over the United Kingdom, to Berlin and see Berlin’s Tegel Airport in the west and the Nokia Gate5 office in the Mitte district of the city.

Foursquare History - Berlin

With a little bit of time, effort and GIS know-how I could have probably come up with a slick animated trail of my check-ins but sometimes a quick and dirty way of seeing where I’ve been on a map is all that’s needed.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Deliberately (and Unexpectedly) Tracking My Journey

I’ve been tracking my journey and in doing so inadvertently uncovered a sea change in the way in which we view the whole thorny issue of location tracking.

Yesterday, Ed Parsons and I drove from London to Nottingham and back to attend the one day Supporting the Contextual Footprint event run by the Horizon Digital Economy Research institute at the University of Nottingham and I had Google Latitude running on my BlackBerry, with location history enabled, as I usually do.

Unofficial Google Latitude T-Shirt

Using the pre smartphone, pre GPS, pre Latitude method of writing it down, the journey went something like this:

  • On Thursday afternoon, leave the Yahoo! office in London.
  • Walk to Piccadilly Circus Tube station and catch the westbound Piccadilly Line.
  • Alight at Heathrow Terminals 1,2, 3 station.
  • Pick up a rental car at Avis.
  • Go home and sleep.
  • On Friday morning, wake up, and leave London.
  • Drive to Nottingham, stopping at Warwick Services on the M40 for coffee.
  • Attend the event in Nottingham.
  • Drive back to London, stopping at Warwick Services on the M40 for more coffee.
  • Drop rental car off at Heathrow.
  • Take car home and sleep.

Nothing too controversial there. Using the smartphone, with GPS and with Latitude method of using my BlackBerry, the journey becomes much more detailed and visual but also shows curious blips where I appear to dance around a location. All the more mysterious as they seem to happen when I know I’m in one place and not moving, until I realise they’re probably AGPS locks from wifi or cell tower triangulation, kicking in for when my GPS can’t get a satellite lock. Playing back the journey on the Google Latitude site looks like this:

Despite the fact that I i) explicitly installed Google Mobile Maps on my BlackBerry, ii) explicitly enabled Latitude in Google Mobile Maps and iii) explicitly enabled location history in my Google Latitude account, a little over 12 months ago, this would have been controversial enough to whip the tabloid media into a privacy infringing frenzy. Looking back to February 2009 in my Delicious bookmarks shows headlines such as Fears that new Google software will spy on workers and Google lets you stalk your friends (which are just plain factually wrong), together with the pointed MPs claim Google Latitude is a threat to privacy: Irony-meter explodes from cnet.

As I went about the events of the day, I checked into my accounts on both Foursquare and on Gowalla. Just take a look at where I checked in and the sequence of check ins.

Tracking my journey; Gowalla

To start with I check in at the Yahoo! UK office, followed by

  • Piccadilly Circus Tube Station
  • Terminal 1 (Heathrow)
  • Avis (Heathrow)
  • Warwick Services (M40)
  • Park Inn (Nottingham)

… which is pretty much a simplified version of the above two journeys. I’m tracking my journey here too but where location based social networks are concerned, the media is far more accommodating and enthusiastic; 12 months after Foursquare’s launch, 500,000 users, 1.4M venues and 15.5 checkins (with Gowalla either neck and neck, out in front or lagging behind according to differing sources) the most shrill piece of negative publicity that Foursquare was able to garner was a mashup which looked for people publicising check ins on Twitter and inferred that this was an open invitation to the criminal element.

The value proposition of Google Latitude has always been in getting the consumer comfortable with sharing their location with a third party and with your social graph, which isn’t good enough for most people to grasp. The value proposition of checking in, keeping tabs on your friends and seeing what they’re doing is far more palatable and easier for the consumer to grasp with media coverage pretty much limited to ohh, look at the funny people obsessively checking in sort of article.

As an aside, if I was at Foursquare or Gowalla I’d be looking to mine the rich vein of stealth data that their users are generating at each check in, as it’s producing a geotagged and categorised set of local business listings and points of interest. For now though, there’s no public sign that either company are doing this, choosing instead to continue to grow their user base and to roll out into new cities and countries.

In the space of a year and with a different face, location tracking has gone from being Big Brother to being one of the hottest pieces of social networking with people at the recent SXSW in Austin TX actively complaining about check-in fatigue because there’s so many of these services (FoursquareGowallaLooptWhrrlBrightkiteBurbn,MyTownCauseWorldHot PotatoPlancast) to choose from and trying to check into them all can take anything up to 10 minutes.

If all of this talk on location tracking sounds interesting and you’re in San Jose CA the week after next at O’Reilly’s Where 2.0 locationfest can I strongly recommend that you check out the founder of, fellow Brit John McKerrell‘s session on Why I Track My Location and You Should Too. As long as it doesn’t clash with my Where 2.0 session of course!

Photo Credit: moleitau on Flickr.
Written at the Park Inn, Nottingham (52.970538, -1.153335) and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)