Where 2.0 Conference Recap

By Paul Ramsey

Ed. note: Reprinted with permission from Clever Elephant, Paul Ramsey's blog.

This was my first Where 2.0, so unfortunately I cannot provide any longitudinal data. Apparently the early expectation was for a conference in the 1000 attendee range, and this gathering seemed closer to 500 - the economic downturn is biting hipster location freaks just as much as the rest of the economy.

A lot of the idle chatter after sessions seemed to focus on the notion that there weren't any "game changing" ideas being presented, which is probably more of a commentary on the rate of change in the industry over the past five years than on the quality of the presentations. My feeling is that the game changed only once, with the roll-out of Google Maps and (more importantly) the associated API. Everything since then has been watching the interaction of ripples and waves on the pond arising from the initial event. Long story short, we were a demanding and jaded audience.

I very much enjoyed watching the talks while monitoring (and silently heckling) on the #where2.0 IRC channel. The real-time commentary could instantly contextualize even generic industry boiler plate. One of the things the IRC channel noticed early on was that there were some repeating themes, which could be used to form a "where 2.0 drinking game":
  • "twitter", take a sip
  • "iPhone", take a sip
  • "Google", take a sip
  • "monetize", take a drink
  • "find a coffee shop", take a drink
  • "in the cloud", take a drink
The repeated references to "iPhone" form one of my big conference takeaway thoughts: ubiquitous geo-location technology (broad markets for consumer devices that always know where they are) is no longer a "future development," it's the present. We knew it was coming, for a long time, but now it's actually here.

Some of the applications of ubiquitous geolocation are really, really dull. Every framework and operating system is now adding a "geolocation API" which does little more than spit back a location-you-are-in-right-now. So Google demonstrated a "blue dot" on their maps, that takes you to your current location. Microsoft demonstrated the Windows 7 location API, that provides all apps access to your current location (subject to various privacy controls). Nokia showed similar stuff. I met a Mozilla developer who is adding a location API to Firefox, same story.

Another predictable (but not dull) application of ubiquitous geolocation is spatial data mining. We will see more and more data mining going forward, but at Where I had my first exposure to the results of this technology, in a pair of talks on Wednesday.

Jeff Holden started with his talk on "Footstreams" (video). Jeff did a great job of providing a terminology and explanation of the power of analyzing and clustering individual spatial tracks. His conceptual parallel of "foot streams" to "click streams," the temporal tracks of information we leave behind while browsing the Web, is very powerful. Unfortunately, his service has access to a relatively small amount of voluntary data, so the analyses weren't very convincing to me.

Greg Skibiski, from Sense Networks provided the data meat (video) for Jeff's conceptual sandwich. Sense Networks has access to heaping piles of data that telephony providers get from their subscribers (involuntarily). The telcos provide anonymized data to Sense Networks, who analyze it to provide a segmentation of the market based on spatial patterns. Greg's talk left me with a massive case of data envy - my inner statistician wants a terabyte of location data for Christmas.

Finally, Ted Morgan from Skyhook dropped an interesting nugget in the midst of his talk about consumer geolocation use patterns. He showed a graph of the number of location apps calling Skyhook over time. Basically, the use of geolocation has hopped onto a steep geometric growth curve over the last 12 months, since the introduction of the App Store. Location apps are now mainstream and the long-awaited LBS tsunami has begun. More devices (Android and Android store, Nokia and their store) are just going to further accelerate this, but's it's not the future anymore, it's the now.

A number of the talks on the morning of the second day were around "location based social networking" applications. The age of the people on stage, and the kinds of applications they are developing brought up two thoughts on the IRC back-channel that I thought were fun.

My observation was that it is odd that introverted geeks are laboring long hours to create applications that make it easier to "meet people". What kind of self-respecting introvert wants to go around meeting people? (Incidentally, the Skyhook talk also included a hilarious example "use case" of an iPhone app that let you both call for a cab and specify your destination, so (as Ted noted) you could get from point A to B in a cab without ever having to speak to a person. Sold!)

The follow-up observation from IRC participant "rabble" (I never linked that nick to a real person, unfortunately) was that the location based social networking start-ups are all solving a problem (keeping in touch with, and meeting up with, a diverse network of friends in a big urban area) that is of greatest importance to a fairly narrow cultural niche. Why are we devoting so much venture capital to solving the social problems of young white collar professionals who have recently moved to a new city?

Final assessment, I went to Where looking for exposure to a side of geospatial that I don't get at other location conferences and that was fulfilled. The Silicon Valley culture is definitely more open source aware, thinking about non-traditional uses of location (in usually non-surprising ways), and maintains a sense of self-regard which is almost as high as my own. Altogether an enjoyable week, many congratulations to conference chair Brady Forrest in putting together an entertaining program.

Published Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Written by Paul Ramsey

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