Talking About A Sense Of Place

As a precursor to last week’s mashup* Digital Trends event, I chatted to Paul Squires of Imperica about my location trends in more detail than the mashup* format would have allowed for. The write-up from that interview is now up on Imperica’s web site and, thanks to them adopting a Creative Commons  license, I’m able to reproduce it here.

A Sense Of Place

It’s going to be mobile’s year.

In fact, it has been “mobile’s year” for many years. Analysts have predicted that the following year will be the golden year of mobile, ever since WAP started to become generally available on small, monochrome screens.

This year, it might just be mobile’s year. Widespread adoption of geolocation, tablet computing and apps are transforming mobile from simply a mobile telephony handset, to truly mobile, experiential, computing.

The handset vendor that has been part of “mobile’s year” ever since the early days of such predictions, is Nokia. The journey from small, blue phones with Snake to technologically complex, Ovi-enabled devices has been fast and, at times, tough. Leading this continued evolution from the point of view of location, is Gary Gale.

Gale, as Director of Ovi Places, is continuing a life-long fascination with maps. From a deep fascination with Harry Beck’s Tube map as a child, he now runs a business which aims to meet – and exceed – the consumer expectations of what mapping can offer to mobility. These expectations are both, from the consumer’s perspective, urgent and complex.

Currently, location is often externalised, as demonstrated by the “world of check-ins” offered by Foursquare, Facebook Places, and elsewhere. Gale feels that location will simply bed into a wider context over time, leading to less specifically location-based applications, but more apps with location features. “The applications that we have, will do a much better job at predicting the information that we need, and delivering it – so it becomes less of a case of ‘app fatigue’. Currently, if you want to find a piece of information, you go to one app. It shows where the information you want to find is, so you swap over to another app, but then you realise that you’ve forgotten the time that the place you want to go to opens, so you have to go back to the previous app to find out. You then go back to the map app, and you find that it has lost the context, so you have to go through it again. It’s an immensely boring experience. Combining those pieces of information into something of use, is the challenge.”

“Industry commentators have been excited about the number of apps downloaded through app stores. It’s a nice infographic, but how many of them are usable? How many of them are used and reused on a daily basis? The challenge is less about the 30 billion mark; it’s much more about making my life easier.”

While Gale acknowledges that location is important – it’s rich, timely, and vital – but the important piece to remember here it is context. Gale’s view, which might challenge some current startups, is that as location does not fundamentally make an app in itself, it should also not be a rationale for a business.

Smartphones continue to occupy a minority share of overall mobile ownership, although this is growing quickly. As more and more consumers exchange their old handsets for sophisticated, GPS-enabled devices, the way in which we understand and use geo-locative data will change. We are still scratching the surface.

Privacy Area

“Despite the meteoric rise of the check-in economy, a lot of people are very uncomfortable with the concept of sharing their current location with a company. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable premise, as a lot of the ways in which this is messaged, is ambiguous and unclear. My fear is that there will be a big tabloid media crash involving this technology; all of a sudden, this is brought to the public, and they will sit up and take notice. In a high-profile divorce between B-list celebrities, if one claims that they weren’t somewhere and the app says that they were, then the press would have a field day. It would be thrust into the public’s attention. The challenge for the location industry as a whole, is to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

Gale points out the undercurrent of apps that, without the consumer knowing it, sends their location data back. While such references are often buried in a terms and conditions page that we all have the tendency to ignore until clicking Accept, the point is made that location information sharing is still oblique, with an insufficient level of clarity and understanding on the part of consumers.

This mismatch of delivery and experience extends to geotargeted advertising. As Gale’s history includes leading Yahoo’s UK Geotechnologies group – which developed the world’s first geotargeted advertising network. However, as he illustrates, geotargeting means, and results in, different outcomes in different environments. Different countries treat IP addresses in very different ways; regional IP allocation based on the Baby Bell network allows for reasonably precise targeting in the US, where many European countries make targeting more difficult, due to dynamic allocation. Such variations, and their impact on message delivery, are lessened with a greater degree of location information – although not without its dangers. “You have a trinity of mobile phone triangulation, GPS lock, and public wi-fi points, for information. They’re pretty accurate. Even without GPS, when someone is running a map application on an iPad even without GPS, just through just public wi-fi, you’re able to work out where you are. The key is to engage the customer, so that they think it’s a really handy feature, rather than “that’s creepy, how the hell did they know that?” – and that’s a big challenge.”

“People are happy with ads on mobile and the web, as they either consciously or unconsciously understand that there isn’t such a thing as a free lunch. What they’re less comfortable with, is the perception that there is someone watching them at that precise minute in time. That’s not the case; with the vast majority of information, apart from that which you sign on and participate in things, is utterly anonymised. You are just one point in a mass from which you can draw trends and plot nice graphs. There is a perception of ‘hell, how did I know that?’ and that’s very scary.”

More Than The Map

The other side of this coin, in terms of experience, is the quality of the information being presented. If your location can be pinpointed, then it means nothing unless there is good information – a good context to surround it. Gale makes the point that we are now at the point where it’s commonplace to use a GPS-enabled smartphone to find your way around a new place, where previously it used to be an A-Z, and latterly printouts of online maps. Neither are really seen in public any more, resulting in an expectation of not only “the now”, but “the what” and “why”. “We have had to go from the static, updated-twice-a-year view of the world, to a view where people have come to expect that the map which they are experiencing, is accurate, all of the time. If there’s a new housing development, footpath or a closed road, they get quite frustrated if they can see it with their own eyes, but the map doesn’t show that. There’s a fundamental change in the way in which we undertake mapping as a professional discipline.”

“The map’s not enough any more. You want a rich experience on the map, to avoid this disjointed app experience from earlier. You want the information represented on the map, to be available to you in a very easy-to-consume form which gives you the key facts that you need, and also to have it updated and be relevant. If you are looking for a place to get a cup of coffee, you want to know where those places are; you then need to know what time it opens; whether it serves food; whether there are nearby transport facilities. We expect that experience, no matter where we are. It’s a global marketplace, but everywhere in the world is local to somebody. It could be your local neighbourhood, or having got off the plane in a new city, you want to find somewhere to go out.”

You Are Here

“You expect that information to be made available in the same level of timeliness and freshness and accuracy as we do in your own local neighbourhood. That’s a significant swing from the two-editions-a-year, to a new place which has just opened up, and it should be on the map on my handset.”

Behind all of this, is place. “The spatial map still remains one of the best ways of visualising information. It’s visceral, visual, and the best way to impart this information. The map is not going anywhere, other than forward. People have predicted the death of the map, but it’s still the best way of representing that data.”

The point is strongly made that “hard data” – such a full address – is no longer enough, in terms of how to present location information. Our interaction with maps is similar to the historical use of search engines: based on hard syntax. “You have to know about informal places; you have to know about colloquial neighbourhoods, which don’t formally exist, but everyone knows where they are – like in London. Soho, Chinatown, the West End… are all ambiguously and vaguely defined, but everyone knows where they are. And you have to be able to understand that. But you also have to be able to understand in the same number of languages that there are in the world. People expect these services to respond to them in their mother tongue. You have to build internationalisation and localisation in, from the ground up. That’s a massive challenge for the industry. There’s still work to be done.”

As we finish, Gale makes the point that capability still needs information. While the UK and many other developed – and developing – countries have an abundance of mapping data to offer, this is not necessarily the case for every country. Essentially, this is about a quality, consistent experience – and for app developers, geotargeting-based businesses, and mapping agencies, to listen to consumers that pick holes in it. “They have the right to say that they were on location, and the experience was appalling. That will act as a significant nudge, in the direction of making the ability to have a complete map from different sources. People are coming to the conclusion that there needs to be a bit more sanity in this.”

Gary Gale is Director of Ovi Places at Nokia. Gary blogs at garygale.com, and he is @vicchi on Twitter.

Photo Credits: Mark Barkway and Isma Monfort on Flickr.
Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office in Schönhauser Allee, Berlin (52.5308072, 13.4108176)

Written by Gary

Husband, Father, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user.

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