The View from Here: Location Matters, but Does the SXSWi Perspective on Location Matter to Professionals?

By Adena Schutzberg

SXSW South by Southwest (SXSW) is a set of festivals and conferences (music and media, film and interactive) held each March in Austin, Texas. It's been growing (even in this economy) and has become a hip destination for artists, musicians and geeks of many flavors. The Interactive event, SXSWi, is where the tech products and trends appear; it ran March 13 -17. Twitter launched there two years ago, setting such a precedent that since then attendees and onlookers alike have asked, "What's the next Twitter?"

Many of the "what's coming at South by Southwest" articles, including this one from C|net, noted expected launches of location-based services. The big difference between SXSW and other conferences from a technology perspective seems to be that attendees at SXSW actually use the new technology while there. The crew on Buzz Out Loud (a C|net podcast) suggested that's exactly why Foursquare (a new geosocial tool that offers points and badges for visiting locations) launched there last week.

The New York Times' Jenna Wortham's discussion of Foursquare documented the "use it now" mentality of the launch.
"South by Southwest was the perfect playground to debut Foursquare, said [its developer] Mr. [Dennis] Crowley. The hoards of tech-savvy geeks that descend on Austin arrive overloaded with agendas, parties, panels and dinners for the weekend. It quickly becomes maddening to locate your friends and track down the after-hours spot that's still jumping. Foursquare, Mr. Crowley said, could be the perfect remedy to that." There are thus special badges for "checking in" at specific locations at the conference.
The people at Pelago, the company behind Whrrl, had the same thought. The new version of the location-based networking software was to launch on Monday, but the company pushed it up to Friday, to be used as much as possible "in an environment where location updates are especially useful" (VentureBeat). The new version includes a clearer interface as well as a focus more on "stories" (what you are doing in text and pictures), over the now ubiquitous "find a restaurant nearby" type of use.

JagTag also used the event to show off the power of its location connected offering: barcode-based marketing campaigns. The marketing effort at SXSW included "strategically placing postcards around the festival: take a picture of this barcode with your camera phone, e-mail it to them, and they'll send you a digital list of all the SXSWi parties" (C|net).

Other location-connected activities had less clear motives. Consider: The Hat Game, a sort of hide-and-seek with a hat. The black bowler hat has a GPS chip and broadcasts its location. Interested participants can share "hat sightings" via Twitter. When a player finds the person wearing the hat he or she becomes the wearer, saying, "Excuse me, I do believe you have my hat!" (BBC) The person who wears the hat the longest over the four-day game period wins.

According to The Guardian, a panel titled Neocartography: Mapping Design and Usability Evolved included speakers from Stamen Designs, Google, Axis Maps and Mapufacture. The new ideas included thinning out data for more clarity, seeing data over time, 3D and spiraling data. Another panel focused on location-based advertising. A third was on location and its ability to enhance social networking.

All of these location focused apps and panels led Om Malik to title his blog post from last Friday, "At SXSW, Location Awareness is the New Black." Malik added to the list above other LBS launches including SocialBomb (a game about capturing pictures at locations) and Gowalla, an LBS travel game. Malik is quite correct that LBS is hot, though I should note, the one LBS company up for a SXSWi Web award, BrightKite, did not win in the mobile Web category. What Malik failed to emphasize in his list was that all these uses of location are essentially games, even those aimed at connecting people via social networking. These games are aimed at getting folks out more and having them get more out of life, and, ergo, more out of SXSW. Launching these apps at SXSW is a great marketing move, no doubt.

That leads to my question: How do we, professional users of geotechnologies, draw upon the energy and creativity of the creators and users of these "me-focused," social apps and turn them toward our broad goal of using geospatial technologies to build a better world? Should we try to tap into these discussions? To me, the gap between the discussions, products and excitement at this event and those at "GIS events" seems enormous - worlds apart. One final example - Baratunde Thurston, of The Onion, described one of the event venues, the Austin Convention Center, as an "Escher nightmare" to navigate. Apparently, no one addressed that issue with basic or advanced location technologies.

Published Friday, March 20th, 2009

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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