Could Location-Based Services Increase Civic Engagement in Millennials?

Location-based social networking services like Foursquare, Gowalla and SCVNGR are increasingly popular, particularly among young people. Could game dynamics and technology be used to increase civic engagement and participation among them? Some intriguing tweets by the founder of Foursquare and an interview with the co-founder of Gowalla suggest that civic badges and other elements might be coming soon.

Here’s the story. Last week, Boston-based IBM consultant Eric Andersen (and Foursquare super-user) caught my notice with a simple tweet:

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@shuba_s yes, in fact most Boston-area Farmers’ Markets are on @Foursquare already – @digiphile even suggested a badge for this; great idea!less than a minute ago via FlockEric Andersen
eric_andersen

And guess what? Dennis Crowley, the founder of Foursquare, was listening:

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@digiphile @eric_andersen It’s like you can read our minds!less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhoneDennis Crowley
dens

I replied: “Given how you research game theory & social media, I’d posit it’s you reading minds.”

Dennis wasn’t the only person with his ears on, either. Twitter VP Katie Stanton chimed in:

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@dens love the idea (from @digiphile?) of a citizen badge (ie “I voted”, “I volunteered”) on 4sq. Am sure RTV & @allforgood would help!less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhoneKatie Jacobs Stanton
KatieS

Uber-blogger and director of Expert Labs Anil Dash was listening as well:

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@dens @katies @digiphile @allforgood could start simple – checkins to locations like churches, food banks, etc. get unique badges.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhoneAnil Dash
anildash

I remained focusing on voting: “While the volunteerism Anil Dash mentioned is important, I’m especially curious about game mechanics with young people in elections.”

Dens replied to all of us:

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@KatieS @digiphile @allforgood Also digging thIs. Tough to know when someone “did” volunteering but would love to hear yer thoughts.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhoneDennis Crowley
dens

Katie had a suggestion:

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@dens Perhaps add a “verification” API to volunteer org like @allforgood @vmconnect. After vol “check’s in”, they “verify” work was done …less than a minute ago via webKatie Jacobs Stanton
KatieS

And agreed with Crowley:

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… @dens make service actions cool and impactful. Also talk to @cindygallop1 (if i ran the world) & @jonathan_G (allforgood). Thanks!less than a minute ago via webKatie Jacobs Stanton
KatieS

He mused about a specific mechanism for Foursquare:

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@anildash @katies @digiphile @allforgood I like when badge unlocks are tied to real world donation dollars (courtesy of some sponsor etc)less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhoneDennis Crowley
dens

And Dash made another good point:

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@dens @katies @digiphile @allforgood Don’t forget, just noting the accessibility of a venue makes the checkin itself a form of volunteering.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhoneAnil Dash
anildash

I agreed with him on that, since that’s an important note on the accessibility of venues. He also reminded me of his post on Ability Maps, #Deaf Mayors and $1000 Strollers, where he made an intriguing suggestion about location-based services:

Let users of a service like Foursquare log in to a site and identify themselves by any accessibility concerns that they have. A user could log in with his social network identity, check a box that says he’s visually impaired or has difficulty climbing stairs, and then give the site permission to log his check-ins to various venues. The terms of service could specify that no individual information would ever be shared, only aggregated data.

Once a few users had signed in and check-ins started to be recorded, it’d be possible to ask “Which venues in this area are popular amongst people who’ve identified themselves as blind?” If there’s a restaurant with a disproportionate number of check-ins from blind diners, then odds are, they’re doing a decent job of accommodation. Found a theme park that’s popular with patrons who use a wheelchair? It’ll probably be suitable for other folks on wheels, too.

So will Foursquare roll out anything like what Dash described? Or integrate the service into elections? Well, the story got more interesting Friday. As noted in ReadWriteWeb’s post on a “Recommendation Engine,” Foursquare announced a partnership with CNN, which will give a “healthy eater” badge to anyone who checks-in at one of 10,000 farmers markets.

Might civic badges be next? Keep on eye on Dennis’ feed. And in the meantime, watch Gowalla. As my interview with the Gowalla co-founder Josh Williams on social media for citizen engagement at today’s AMP Summit showed, that location-based social network already has moved into this space.

Will Fourquare match Gowalla’s moves, sending a million updates that “I voted!” into Twitter in November? Stay tuned. If the companies decide to compete around catalyzing civic engagement in millennials, it could be a win-win for the grown members of the services and for the country.

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