Geotagged at Yahoo! campus, Sunnyvale, California (37.41454057942429,-122.02433008921975)

The Location Battle Between You and Your Phone

Whenever I talk about the privacy implications inherent in sharing your location with an app or service, I keep coming back to the idea that it's essential to be your own source of truth for your location. This is a slightly verbose way of saying that you need to be able to lie about your location or that you need to be able to say "no, I really am here" despite what other location contexts such as GPS, cell tower triangulation or public wifi MAC address triangulation may have to say on the matter.

Of course, it's never quite as straightforward as that and here's why. The two location based mobile services that are getting a lot of coverage at the moment are FourSquare and Gowalla.

They both rely on their users checking into a location by saying "here I am" and as a neat side effect they're generating a geo-tagged set of local business and POI listings, thus verifying and adhering to my Theory of Stuff. But more about that in my next post, for now let's concentrate on their user's location.Much has been made of FourSquare's approach to checking in; you're presented with a list of places nearby, generated according to your A-GPS location, for you to check into. But you can also search for places and check into them as well. Some commentators view this as a failing in their model, allowing for someone to check in to a location and maintain their Mayor status, from their comfort of their own sofa. Now granted if you wish to game FourSquare this will allow you to do so, but it also allows you to be your own source of truth. I've lost count of the number of times I've stood in the middle of the concourse in London's Waterloo Station and Waterloo has not been amongst the choices of place that FourSquare presents me to check into, yet I've been able to do so by searching for the place and then forcing FourSquare to accept that "yes, I really am here".

Gowalla takes a different approach and relies entirely on the accuracy of the A-GPS system on my phone. If your phone doesn't agree with you on the matter of location then you can't check in, as the screen capture below shows.

I'm currently in California visiting the Yahoo! mothership; at the time when I took this screenshot I was seated in Yahoo! Building E, which already exists as a spot in Gowalla. My iPhone disagreed with me and insistent I was some 120 meters away in the middle of the Lockheed Martin parking lot on nearby Moffett Field and as a result it just wouldn't let me check in. FourSquare, also taking its cue from the A-GPS on my iPhone had the same problem but was quite happy to let me override this and check in to its version of the Yahoo! Building E place.

So which approach provides the best user experience? I'd strongly argue that the Gowalla approach frustrates users by effectively saying I know better than you, whilst FourSquare's approach, whilst able to be gamed and abused, allows the user to insist that they do know best in these circumstances. Only time will tell which approach will succeed, but being your own source of  truth continues to be of major significance when sharing your location with the world at large.

Gary Gale

I'm Gary ... a Husband, Father, CTO at Kamma, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user