In the era of the quantified self, there is is not a more powerful, yet less realized opportunity than passive location tracking.
Maintaining a constant record of your location presents innumerable opportunities. Unlike most other forms of data exhaust, location data has been standardized and the KML of your life will be the key to countless future insights.
When I talk about location tracking, I often run into Foursquare enthusiasts who believe their checkins serve as an adequate life log. While Foursquare does allow you to selectively share (and thus record) certain moments in your life, it’s grossly insufficient. If Foursquare is the occasional, but delicious hamburger to subsistence, passive location tracking is oxygen. To truly glean insight, you have to know where you’ve been at ALL times.
My interest in passive location tracking started in early 2011 with iPhone Tracker. For those of you who don’t remember, it was uncovered that the iPhone was secretly tracking your location and a developer made it easy to extract and visualize that data. While many people were furious with Apple, I became hooked. [Here’s a TC article for more: Surprise! Your iPhone is Tracking Your Every Move]
I saved both the raw data and the video that iPhone tracker produced. Here’s my life from July of 2010 through May of 2011:
As you can see, this data tells the story of my life. I was working for Microsoft and constantly flying between Boston and Seattle. I was working closely with Facebook on Docs.com and you can see several trips to the Bay Area as well. This data also rolls into the beginning of Spindle, but ended abruptly when Apple fixed the “bug.”
To date, Google has made the greatest effort to commercialize location tracking with Latitude. I quickly registered and granted Latitude continuous access to my location. I logged over 212,334 miles in Latitude. Give me a date and time and I can tell you exactly where I was for the past ~3 years. Although I don’t have a video like iPhone Tracker produced, the data holds the entire story of Spindle from fundraising, to grinding out endless hours in the office, to selling the company to Twitter. One of these days I’ll crack it open to visualize the travel pain associated with being the CEO of a consumer startup in Boston…
Although Latitude was best because it “just worked,” Google clearly never put a day’s effort into the project after it launched. The Dashboard never evolved and insights were never gleaned from the massive amounts of data I provided. In fact, Latitude’s dashboard displayed this message from the day it launched until the day it was shuttered:
With Google making the only real effort… and with it being such a half assed effort… you could say it’s a problem that has never been tackled in earnest.
Google discontinued Latitude this summer and there is now no equivalent effort to commercialize passive location tracking. So, you could say it’s a problem ripe for the tackling.
The business case for location tracking
The opportunity in passive location tracking is converting the log of coordinates into structured data and meaningful insights. My life’s KML reveals the following (and more):
- How often I eat out, on what nights, at what times, and at what types of places
- What activities I participate in
- How I commute
- How my life is divided between work, home, and other activities
- If I travel for work and if I travel for vacation. If so, where. And what do I do on those trips.
- How often I shop and what stores I frequent
The challenge is that location data is a simple log of coordinates, but evaluating the coordinates against datasets like Foursquare’s points of interest and other event data allows us to convert that log into structured insights. These insights map almost perfectly to ad targeting options. These are some of Facebook’s targeting options:
Insight gleaned from passive location tracking has the opportunity to dramatically improve targeting because it’s a truer and more complete representation of interest and intent. Imagine landing in a new city and seeing suggestions based on where your friends actually go, not just the places they boast about online.
I believe there’s a clear opportunity for a startup to build this insights engine and either license or sell it to a company with A) a massive user base that can be enrolled in passive location tracking and B) an ad network.
Or, there’s an opportunity for one of the big companies to see this through… which is what I thought Google was doing… which is why I thought Latitude would never die. Guess I was wrong.
I believe there’s really only one player today, Chronos. They’re doing three things that are really smart.
- They’re converting the raw location data into structured data.
- They’re gleaning user-beneficial insights from that data in the form of infographics. Said another way, they’re focusing on single user utility / what’s in it for me? There’s a great example on their site, you should check it out.
- They’re enlisting each user to help classify their own data, hopefully improving their ability to automagically structure data going forward.
I’m a big fan of Chronos. They’re carrying the torch and I hope they succeed.
What problems remain
There are two primary problems in location tracking: battery life and user skepticism. While we can only wait for GPS to become less of an energy hog or for batteries to improve dramatically, we can do something now about user interest in the space.
Any real solution needs to truly focus on insights. The benefit of sharing my location needs to outweigh the costs (opting into an ad system and draining my battery). Simply by granting access to my location, I should gain true insight that is helpful both looking backward and forward in time. I believe this insight could be magical enough to captivate people’s interest.
Any real solution needs to provide unrestricted and unadulterated access to my own location data. In a perfect world, I’d love to see my KML file synced to Dropbox. This would make people more likely to bet on a nascent service. It would also encourage other communities and developers to rely on one app to serve as the de facto location logging client. For example, photographers would likely log their location continuously if they trusted they could access that data to geotag their photos in Aperture.
True insights will be gleaned when developers cooperate and overlay the KML of your life against data about your health, diet, career success, etc.
I’m currently a Chronos man. Although they’re an early stage startup and have limited resources, they’ve been making great progress and the service works well. That said, even if they sucked, they’re the only game in town.
I’d love to see more innovation in this space and am happy to lend my time to anyone tackling these problems.Tweet Vote on HN