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.

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.

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), 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?

Last Thursday Facebook announced a major step in their growth strategy. It is now possible for others (both companies and Facebook-users) to build so-called applications that can be integrated in your Facebook profile. this is way more than just making widgets possible. Facebook now gives API access to their core functionality, like replacing their well used own photo-functionality with your own.
Twitter in Facebook
Immediately a wave of applications has become available. Some like Twitter, in cooperation between Facebook and the third party, others like Flickr, are made by some student with a Facebook profile.
I added applications for, Flickr, my presence in other YASNs, Twitter, Radar and one for developers. I hope for the quick availability of apps for Plazes, Jaiku and Skype.
I think this step is interesting in a couple of ways. First the degree of openness (where MySpaces clumsy handling of widgets pales in comparison), but also for platforms that position themselves as ‘ open’ such as PeopleAggregator and Ning where you can start your own network, this is good news.
I see this as a sign that openness and the ability to migrate your network across platforms now can become part of the competing elements in the YASN field. If you love somebody, set them free, now stands a change to become true for YASNs a bit more. Keeping your customers by acknowledging they do not want to be imprisoned by your product.
Flickr and the YASN application
Compare this to the weird strategy Ecademy had, making their free functionality next to useless, and making it impossible to even delete your account.
I think Facebook made a great step, that also brings value to the student communities that made Facebook big. With that the criticism Facebook reaped when opening up to all last September, amongst others from Danah Boyd, that opening Facebook would mean the end is answered too. Also for the ‘ab origine’ community in Facebook new value has been added.
Apps you add are also mentioned to your contacts, making quick adoption of apps possible.

Last week at an so-called executive update for a big publishing company I talked about YASNs in the context of communities and networks.

How YASNs are walled gardens.
How they often are positioning themselves as the ‘only’ channel of communication.
No export, no migrating your content, let alone your network, to another platform.

And then I heard myself say it:
They are also separating your real live networks and communities from their digital representation on-line.
That is why it is exciting to see services that allow you to take your digitally represented network with you into the physical world. With tools like Jaiku (and not Twitter!), Plazes and Imity, a bridge is build between your real world interaction and your on-line interaction. Augmenting each other, strengthening each other. They’re mobile clients as well as yasns.

The death of YASNs.
I’ve said it before, but this time I heard new meaning in my own words. The coin dropped so to speak.
So when PeopleAggregator is an answer to the walled gardens, and maintaining too many profiles…will it also start allowing me to take my network with me to the place where it matters: my physical world movements and face to face interactions? Marc? Paolo?

Or will the Plazes’s Jaiku’s and the Imity’s take yasns to the next stage of evolution?

I now wonder when I will be deleting my profiles at LinkedIn, Xing, Tribe or Hyves and such. On the other hand, I still have a profile at Orkut and Ryze…. 😉

In Ambient Findability, the author Peter Morville talks about how The Sea of bits is rolling onto the shores of the land of atoms. This to me is at this point one of the most interesting and promising areas of web development, and a logical next step of the direction webapps took with social software. Putting relationships first in your tools makes presence and location awareness suddenly worthwile, where it wasn’t before when the web was filled with information, more a repository and less a meeting place. I have been playing with two applications exploring that interesting new place where the information landscape meets our geographical landscape, using our social landscape as an intermediary. And I am eagerly looking forward to getting my hands on the beta of a third. Those three applications are Plazes, Jaiku and Imity.

Plazes is already pretty old in internet terms. I first heard Felix Petersen about his Plazes tool in the spring of 2004, and joined their beta later that year. It allows you to share your geographic location with others, and see who is near you, or where interesting locations are around you. They have been building on the concept continuously. Recently they brought Plazes to your mobile phone, though for a limited number of models. And now SMS-features have been added opening up all mobile phones to Plazes. The mobile features allow for more granular location-resolution (based on cell tower triangulation) and getting information quickly on nearby free hotspots for instance, or contacts present in your area.

Jaiku takes presence a step further than Plazes. Where Plazes focusses on geographic location, and presenting information on net access, contacts, and photos around that, Jaiku aims to generate a continuous presence stream, or ‘chatter’. It takes your different RSS feeds, accepts SMS messages, and blurbs you enter on the site, and combines them into one stream. This allows your contacts to be peripherally aware of what you are up to, and estimate the chance and desireability of meeting up. Perhaps not something to publicly share, but again a good example not of having mobile access to information on the web, but of bringing mobile information to the web around your person. The information you share can of course be accessed by others both on the web, as well as on a mobile client.

In the image above you see examples of delicious bookmarks, a Plazes Traze, an SMS text, a Flickr image and a text blurb entered on the site, being combined into my presence stream.

Imity is yet another angle on presence awareness. It builds on bluetooth signature detection. It allows for you to see who is in the area, or if a friend perhaps just passed through the same location. I first got a glimpse of Imity during this years Reboot conference (see their presentation), and they are now accepting e-mail addresses of those eager to beta test. The Pocket Radar, as Imity calls it, allows you also to see alerts that someone in your social network platforms (such as Xing, LinkedIn etc.) is near you, enabling chance meetings. It can also be used to ‘log’ who was on an event, and thus build a list of participants for later on-line interaction after the event took place. I am eager to try this out.

(Bluetooth map of Reboot conference rooms, picture uploaded by Pollas.)

Three interesting tools, and worthwile to keep track of their development. You can track them yourselves through their blogs of course: Plazes blog, Jaiku blog, Imity blog.