Location Based Services Can Do Without Maps

At the Communia Workshop (organized by the Open Knowledge Foundation) yesterday and today we talked about opening up government data sources for the wider public, so others can build their own mash-ups and applications with that data. Most of the existing examples shown were map-based one way or another. That led to some discussion, with some asking why (Google-)maps were so prominent in the examples, and why not focus on some of the other great data sources out there, and others saying that your geographic location is so central to most of what you do that maps are logically the center piece of most mash-ups, and therefore the starting point for opening up government data.

Eurovision Songfestival on Google Maps
Example of a random Google-maps based representation of information: European Songfestival songs

Now of course, mobile applications are all over geo-data as well, under the collective name of location based services.
I would like to propose a slightly different approach to location based services, by looking at them as context based services (a term I also heard Felix Petersen of Nokia/Plazes use at Shift last fall). Now, your geographic location is always part of your context. But it might not be the most important part of your context in a given situation. Elements in a context are often more interesting because of their relative position to you or each other, not so much because of their absolute position. So let’s make a distinction between geographic location as an important part of my context, and maps.

For me as I write this, it is relevant to know where the nearest Tube-station is, and how far in which general direction I need to walk to get there. I don’t care where exactly on the map I am however. If I had a map, I could infer how far I need to walk etc, but if I can know directly, I do not need to know my location nor a map to see where to go.

Google Latitude
Screenshot of Google Latitude, showing 2 contacts in Amsterdam

Also, if you look at e.g. Google’s Latitude, it is interesting to know where my friends and contacts are. But I really don’t care where exactly they are. I only really want to know when they are near me, especially when they are nearer than usual, and inversely when they are further away from me than usual. It is relevant for me to know if a friend from North America is currently in the Netherlands, as that is an opportunity to meet up, or if we happen to find ourselves in the same city or region somewhere (Dopplr is an excellent example of this, which really does not need maps). It is relevant for me, when I try to phone somebody, to know I will not be reaching them in their normal location or time zone but half a world away. It possibly leads to a different decision on how important and relevant it is to call them. But to make that revised decision I do not need to know an exact location and look them up on a map. Jaiku‘s status messages about location or availability e.g. are good enough for that. In the same way, I would be interested to know which of my LinkedIn contacts are in the same building as I am, but that does not imply I need to know where the building is, or where the other person was before (s)he entered the building.

So let’s look at context more than mapped location when it comes to building our apps and mash-ups. That will free us from our current heavy map-focus, while not ignoring the underlying importance of our geographic location to our current context. A promising example is Wikitude AR (see video above), that gives you info on your immediate surroundings without resorting to maps (though it can show you a map as well)

Also it allows us to think of more context based services, moving beyond immediate geographic location.
What other factors in your context are worth considering, comparing, sharing, interacting with?

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