Geolocation Risk:Benefit

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.


  1. znmeb January 2, 2010

    I don't think there is *any* benefit to the *consumer* from giving away his or her location to merchants. Consumers don't want the “convenience” of automated discovery of their discount codes. What we want is low prices without having to give up any information about ourselves other than our bank account number. And we want guarantees that said bank account number is secure, and that our address will be used to receive mail only from people we have given *explicit* permission to send us mail!

  2. geechee_girl January 2, 2010

    Well that would be nice, but I think it has been a number of years since the consumer has gotten those wishes. Thus, thinking to the present and future – how to make it safer and better from where we are (and perhaps retroactively where enough consumer blowback occurs) is a must.

  3. uberVU - social comments January 2, 2010

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  5. Chuck Simmins January 3, 2010

    Grocery stores are, when it's all said and done, slaves to the banking system. And that means that they move at the snail's pace that banking has imposed on its world.

    When you look at the world around us, most of what we do is still based in the 1800's. For all the high tech we talk about, there are very few real applications in use in our day to day lives.

  6. larryirons January 3, 2010

    I don't see that geolocation is needed for the applications you have in mind in the retail space. I've posted about visual tags several times. The only thing required is a standardized approach to visual tagging (i.e. 2D barcodes) so that an item's coupon offers a link to a website that sends a coded text message. Proof of the discount could then be done via bluetooth at checkout. That way the whole relationship remains “pull” without the privacy implications and spam potential of a “push” geolocation solution.

    Does that make sense? There are also a range of uses for visual tagging in mobile learning applications as well.

  7. geechee_girl January 3, 2010

    That's interesting. I can see it working but having a huge onramp problem. People seem to grasp what geolocation means, at least vaguely, but for many people who aren't as into tech, how do you explain technology like visual tags and how to integrate them? I'd think that would be the main hurdle between the two – perception. Geolocation is often perceived as a simple toggle switch to turn on or off, if that makes sense.

  8. larryirons January 3, 2010

    Its just another kind of barcode that your smartphone reads. Kind of like self checkout for the consumer, but done through the smartphone at the shelf for a discount rather than at the counter for a checkout. As far as bluetooth goes, that is as simple as gesturing, i.e. bumping your smartphone lightly against a reader. These kind of near field ubiquitous computing apps are no more strange than using pass cards on the freeway.

  9. geechee_girl January 9, 2010

    Here are some other thoughts from the blogosphere on geolocation:

  10. geechee_girl January 9, 2010

    Here are some other thoughts from the blogosphere on geolocation:

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