Life After Death of the Check-In

The first generation of location-based apps has fallen short. Most consumers don't even know location apps exist, and only a tiny minority actually use them. Today's apps focus on benefits for businesses, like being discovered by nearby shoppers, but they've failed to stir customers. Can next-generation companies like Geoloqi show us why location is valuable?

The Foursquare-style check-in has been pronounced dead before, but here are the results of the autopsy: Delivery.com has enabled its users to virtually check in to restaurants from which they're ordering. Customers don't have to go to the restaurant at all. Foursquare is fine with this. In other words, the location check-in has lost all meaning.

Check-ins didn't have much meaning to begin with. A Forrester report in December found that only 4% of U.S. adults used location apps, and 70% don't even know what they are. Though Foursquare has been on the market for nearly four years, the idea of intentionally blasting one's present location to the world is a foreign concept to most people.

That's understandable. What value does a check-in have to the user? At worst, it's an invitation of real danger. Usually, it's a mundane performance of "I'm at the grocery store!", which is annoying noise to one's friends and followers.

At best, check-ins provide local recommendations, which are easy enough to find online without broadcasting one's dining habits. And now that virtual check-ins are possible without even physically being somewhere, check-ins are just absurd.

Geoloquacious

Even if a tiny minority of people check in to places, those users make enough noise to compensate for the rest. Uncontrolled check-in behavior is a kind of disorder. Geoloqi co-founder Amber Case calls it "geoloquaciousness."

Geoloquacious
Adj. the act of someone incessantly updating their location on a social network for all to see, without understanding that it is mundane information.

Geoloquaciousness syndrome results from a design flaw in the networks that support location sharing. The potential value of location sharing to people and the data-driven business models of social networking companies are at odds. One's present location is about as sensitive a data point as Facebook or Google+ ever has to handle, so they have to bend over backwards to not betray their users' privacy. They still fail too often.

The check-in is the best social networks can do. It allows them to collect at least one piece of location data to monetize, but it doesn't compromise the user's privacy for long. It's a willful act; to check in is to willingly share where one is, even if one doesn't fully grasp the consequences of doing so.

Find My Friends

The problem with check-ins is that they make too much noise and offer too little information. A check-in is just a single point in space and time. That's a thin slice of the information that's available about location now that smartphones are abundant.

"Location is a sensor," Case says. "It adds context to what was motionless." Motion and context are valuable data, though they make the privacy issues more touchy.

The major tech companies have hesitantly pushed location sharing beyond the check-in in dedicated, experimental products. These applications use real-time location, but they do so for closed networks.

Google Latitude and Apple's Find My Friends allow users to grant each other permission to pinpoint each other on a map at all times, unless sharing is turned off. Microsoft's We're In app is more cautious, setting up temporary location sharing around an event that disappears when it's over.

Facebook has taken a stab at real-time location sharing in its dedicated Messenger app, but it doesn't go all the way. It allows users to drop a pin on a map while sending an instant message, but it doesn't continue tracking.

This year's trendy location apps track real-time location but don't display it. They just send notifications when someone is nearby. These apps are best known for eating smartphone batteries for breakfast. Start-ups like Glassmap are already working to improve real-time location technology, expecting that a market will emerge.

But what kinds of software will serve that market? Check-ins to restaurants and finding friends on a map have evidently limited appeal. How does a location app bring value to more than 4% of people?

Location Is A Sensor

Geoloqi's co-founders are taking notes. "I had watched a lot of geo companies go down," Case told Richard MacManus at South by Southwest this year, "and so I'd been keeping this large notebook of what made them go." The reasons run the gamut from features, to timing, to pricing, and the technical hurdles of accuracy and battery life can be showstoppers.

She has teamed up with Aaron Parecki, champion of the quantified self. Parecki has been keeping track of the data generated by his day-to-day life since he was a kid, long before he could use smartphone sensors to help him.

His experiments in gathering and organizing data about himself have demonstrated that location data suddenly take on enormous value if they're owned and personal, rather than mere "data entry for other companies."

Location data that we control allows us to discover patterns in our lives. We can understand ourselves better and use the knowledge to be healthier and happier. We also develop an emotionally rich history. Imagine if your mobile device was able to send you this notification as you walked into a shop:

"Your grandmother checked in here 55 years ago."

How's that for a "value add?"

Pressing the Invisible Button

Case and Parecki say they believe that location's social contract has not yet been defined. That's why geoloquaciousness is rampant, and why the rest of us don't see the benefit of these services at all. When thinking about location tracking, consumers default to fear about safety and privacy, and companies default to greed, looking for ways to extract money from the data.

Part of Geoloqi's task is educational, outlining the terms of that contract and the benefits for both parties. As Case rightly points out, while location tracking might raise the specter of stalking for the uninitiated public, "everyone knowing where I am is the safest place I can be" if something actually goes wrong.

But there's also positive, emotional value waiting to be unlocked by better location technology. The history and analytics we can gather about ourselves are fun, which is valuable enough, but they're also helpful. A whole new class of businesses can be built to provide people and companies with more insight into the patterns we generate moving from place to place.

Geoloqi is learning to provide the tools for location services to be as light and ever-present as air. It also offers a free app for iOS and Android to demonstrate and test its approach. I'm walking around, testing it out, and getting comfortable pressing what Case calls "the invisible button" of sharing my location. Here's what happened the first time.

Lead image by Aaron Parecki

Crowd image courtesy of Shutterstock