Where's the map?

Guest blogger Tyler Bell is a geotechnologist with broad interests in open source and place-based information systems He is currently managing Platform technologies at AlikeList, a Sunnyvale-based Social/Local start-up, where he designs disambiguation systems, geo technology platforms, and syndication APIs. Until recently Tyler led the Geo Technologies product team at Yahoo!, conceiving and launching the Placemaker and GeoPlanet geo-enrichment platforms.

where20 foursquare badgeThis year’s Where 2.0 has sold out, pushing the San Jose Marriott’s fire code into the red with over 900 attendees. With assured kudos to the conference team, it speaks more loudly as a bellwether for the Geo Sector itself, because the so-called Year of the Map is finally here. However the Map is playing only a supporting role, and will continue to be relegated as “Local and Geo” becomes less about Mapping and more about Local Experiences.

Take Foursquare: Opening his keynote today with a curiously genuine “have you heard of Foursquare?”, Denis Crowley recounted in congenial staccato his founding premise: how can we make Life more like a game? The recipe for success was simple: take an existing behavior (going out and doing stuff), enrich it, and make it fun. Crowley and his Team have managed to twig onto something so elegant and popular that the big players have vocally wished they invented it (a dancecard full of eager VCs is further reason, should any be needed). But what started as a game is now “driving users to lead a more interesting life” as Foursquare players compete for Fitness and Pizza badges — rarely both, I assume — and vie for Mayorships that translate virtual accomplishments into real-world rewards.

At Foursquare (and Gowalla, Yelp and similar services) every check-in is a small advertisement for a place, and this really is where the magic lies: Foursquare connects SMBs (Small and Medium Businesses) to their customers, and rewards both: “if you give our users deals”, Crowley says to SMBs “we give you data”. Because Foursquare can provide vendors welcome insight into their users’ behavior (who shows up where, when), they are positioned to become a “Google Analytics for bricks-and-mortar businesses”, and releasing the data back out through the API: a winning, virtuous, and undoubtedly profitable, circle. Compare this approach to something like (for example) Groupon, where the SMB-to-Customer contact is interdicted and owned by the facilitating company.

But back to the map – it’s not in evidence. Geo Technology is critical to Foursquare; but its map is only a casual convenience. Nor can the Map be found in what is increasingly incorrectly described as ‘Local Search’.

Danny Sullivan (Search Engine Land) chaired an all-too-brief ‘Big Panel with the Big Players’ session with the – wait for it — ‘Big Players’ in Local Search: Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and (in august company) Yelp. Panels such as this present the audience an opportunity to hear unscripted industry commentary straight from the source, but are often a sump of uninformative doggerel; this one managed to be a bit both. Danny kept the discussion on course, charitably teeing up the usual suspects to warm up the panel: mobile, reviews, and street side imagery.

While much of the panel discussion could be anticipated in advance (Streetview is popular, Mobile is important), the audience probably found the discussion of Reviews to be the most revealing with regards to product thinking and corporate character: John Henke gave what can most accurately be described as a Google-like commentary: Reviews “raise the level of participation, and users can look at the aggregate to obtain a general signal”, while Tom Wailes (Yahoo) was perhaps unsurprisingly most sympathetic with my own thinking: the future of local referrals lies not in reviews and ratings from semi anonymous individuals, but rather in trusted recommendations from people I know. A recent Forrester survey says 86% of people prefer trusted recommendations; that number will only rise.

But wherein lies the map? Microsoft’s Arcas hit this one on the head: “our initiatives are more about assembling and presenting the virtual world, not owning it”. The Map, then, becomes the means of conveyance for locally-relevant information, not the end in itself.

A final segue: Gary Gale’s (Yahoo!) talk on “Ubiquitous Location, The New Frontier and Hyperlocal Nirvana” was similarly map-free: Location is not as precise, ubiquitous, correct as we presume, and the map itself is too often an incorrect and misleading codification of geography (see Paul Ramsey’s ‘Why Your Data Sucks‘ Ignite talk last night as a succinct, supporting argument).

Although not called out explicitly in Brady’s “Big Conversations” at Where 2.0, a significant tenor at this year’s conference is the advent of “Disambiguation Platforms”: APIs that take one identifier for a place and translate it into another: while Brightkite is doing this in part with its check.in service, more holistic platforms have launched today at Where with Placecast’s Placematch API and Yahoo’s Concordance Platform. These services highlight the forthcoming importance of Local/Place/Venue identifiers as users locate, and associate themselves with named places rather than long/lat coordinates. I would modify Michael Jones’ (Google) tweeted take that “Maps are not just driving directions. Maps are a way that humans understand their planet”. Places are, in fact, they way that people understand the world around them; maps are just a way of representing this understanding. This is not semantics; this is important.

So the Year of the Map is upon us, but increasingly without the Map.