As technophiles and music-lovers descend on Austin this week for SXSW (that’s South by Southwest, if you’re not in the know), attendees won’t just be looking for trends, tweets, and Facebook posts, but where people are checking-in at the festival’s many conferences, venues, and post-panel hangouts. If Twitter was the breakout social media trend of 2009, then location-based check-in services, like Foursquare and Gowalla,were 2010’s rising stars, and with no signs of slowing down soon, expect even more progress for these startups in 2011.
Location-based social media isn’t a new concept. Predecessors like Loopt have been around since 2005. Originally, these services allowed users to report their location via GPS on their mobile phones and send that data to their friends via the application. But newer startups took the concept a couple steps further. By creating additional incentives for users to check-in (badges, elevated user status), and getting local and national businesses actively involved in the system (application-only specials, company profiles), the concept really took off. Users don’t just figure out where their friends are, but can find out about nearby businesses and locations in their city, secret discounts, and leave tips and recommendations for other users both and out of their networks. The strategy paid off. Today, industry leader Foursquare has over 6.5 million users on its network and 2 million check-ins per day.
Check-ins aren’t just exclusive to Foursquare. Major players like Facebook and Google have adopted their own versions (Latitude and Places, respectively), using the weight of their information databases and high user base to push them ahead in the market. Additionally, location-based social media has also spawned a number of spin-offs. Hot Potato (which was acquired by Facebook in late 2010) allowed users to check-in at live events and gatherings; GetGlue allows users to check-in to TV shows, movies, and books; and Hashable allows its users to track networking opportunities by checking-in with other people. As these services and applications progress, the information collected becomes less about the individual users and locations listed, but more about creating a specific network, or series of networks, within a given place.
The information and multiple levels of data collected by Foursquare, Gowalla, and its competitors could give city planners and officials terrific insight into over-and under-utilized districts and businesses. By analyzing check-in patterns across these services, planners could have the ability to see which businesses and locales are more popular among locals or tourists, and which areas of the city see high or low volumes of pedestrian traffic depending on the time of day (applications like Blacktop and WeePlaces already do this for basic, personal use). And since the content is entirely user-generated and constantly changing, data can be uploaded and refreshed in real time to reflect the most current patterns and needs.
However, there’s room for improvement. To get truly accurate data, these services will need to rely on a much bigger user-base and the commitment of its users to physically check-in. Additionally, access to these services is limited across the three major smartphone platforms, and the applications' exclusivity to smartphones themselves means the data doesn't truly reflect the local population's activity. Still, if planners could get their hands on this evolving data, it can move beyond the realm of creating personal networks, and start being used to implement social change and improve urban form.
Could location-based social media be the next step in helping planners better understand their cities?