For a couple of years now I’ve been telling people who ask me where the “next” thing will be happening that Geolocation and Mobile are the answer. These two technologies are very different, and yet they go hand in hand. For the end user, they come with inherent risks along with the benefits. For the business, there are primarily benefits to being geolocation friendly and mobile ready.
If you are a business, being on the leading edge of geolocation and mobile technologies will be key to your success. I wish someone would explain to me why on earth the grocery stores (VRM) have not banded together to make a cross platform mobile app for WinMo, iPhone, Droid that lets me tell the app which store I’m in, have it know my reward number, and then let me photo-scan barcodes for discounts and easy check out. We have the technology, stores just fear data sharing. Trust me, consumers WANT the ease of not having 20 store cards in their wallet. An application like Blippy that tweets your purchases could make the experience even more fun for shoppers who opted in to it, and meanwhile I could go to Stop and Shop for groceries, Body Shop for makeup, Irving for gas and PayLess for shoes in one day and only need to remember my phone, instead of a wallet full of store cards or a keychain so big it won’t fit in my pocket because of the keychain card version. If you are truly tech savvy, you are getting your business listed on mobile and geolocation applications proactively to take it to the next level.
End users have different concerns. No matter who you are, having geolocation settings turned on can make your life interesting if you try to, say, call in for work sick and then pop up at home online. But “how to get fired” jokes aside, If you are a woman, or a minor, geolocation technology has inherent drawbacks for you. If you are, for example, a woman who is fleeing an abusive relationship, you need mobile technology in the form of a cell phone to ensure your safety. Most abusers don’t honor restraining orders, should you be able to even obtain one, and you need a way to call for help. But if your abuser is tech savvy, you can see how geolocation can also come with inherent risk (this is true of many social web tools for women and children in this situation, by the way, but geolocation is the topic today).
If you are a minor, mobile tech is part of your daily life by now at nearly all income levels, in some way. This is helpful, and a fantastic tool for the future, but adding in geolocation creates another risk issue. That of predators (of all types, not just sexual predators) who can monitor a minor’s location if the minor does not take the proactive stance of a) turning off geolocation whenever the option is allowed b) having parents or a guardian who will take the time to check and make sure the feature is off and c) avoiding the use of tools that utilize geolocation and don’t offer an option to turn it off.
Communities online can offer their own inherent challenges when it comes to geolocation and mobile. Take popular yet frivolous internet game Foursquare for example. In this case Foursquare allows you to enter a new location with as much or as little location data as you’d like. This is fantastic – it allows people to play the game and to include somewhere like their office, without being in danger if they work alone. Sure, Foursquare also offers a way to check in and not show anyone your location at all, but a) what fun is that? and b) the users we’re about to discuss will eventually complain if you do this too often.
In Foursquare’s case, a few weird, over zealous users can really spoil the bunch. They (not the application creators) act like the app police, ordering take downs of frivolous locations like “My Couch” all over the country, and reporting any location with a vague address (like “corner of Vine and Temple St”) all over the country. Never mind that this is something Foursqaure allows, that it is a game and is supposed to be fun, or that for some it’s a matter of safety – they are the hall monitors of the internet. To remove the ability to be vague when needed, or to have the application be fun, is detrimental to the application’s success and can have adverse consequences for the user.
Foursquare is just an example of how users of the technology can contribute to the problem overall. In the end we are in charge of our own safety online, yet for some the knowledge of how to be safe just isn’t there. It is my view that application providers need to make it default to opt out of geolocation as this becomes the norm, need to make sure the settings are obvious to change privacy levels and the rules of use are clear, and need to do a little policing of overzealous or bad-apple users whose tactics may put other less savvy users in challenging positions.
This is not a “fear this technology” or “scary scary internet” post in any way. I advocate caution online and offline, but in the end this is a “how can we make this cool new frontier safe for everyone?” post. Because in the end, this technology is not coming, it’s here now, and we need to work together to make sure it is safe and easy to understand and useful for all.