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The GeoSpatial Foursquare obligation

2013 June 8

Explore what is around you

Foursquare is an app which helps you explore what is around you, share your location with friends and/or contribute to better points-of-interest. By checking in at locations, Foursquare lets you collect points. You can become the mayor of a venue if you check-in often enough, that is when you check-in more than others do. Off course there is no real obligation to use Foursquare, but I am making an exception for geographers, or those working in the GeoSpatial world. They should at least have an opinion about the hyperlocal world and apps like Foursquare, and a good way to gain understanding is to give it a try yourself. This blogpost is just a short résumé of my personal Foursquare experience and it may be of help as well.

The participation puzzle
As social media networks can be quite puzzling, I have channeled my participation and contributions into separate channels (this may require a separate blogpost). My Foursquare “friends” (connections would be more appropriate) are -real- people I have met and share a similar work environment with: the GeoSpatial world or the world of modern maps if you will. This does e.g. exclude friends in the Dutch sense, I keep them in my Facebook world. Every now and then I go through my list of connections and disconnect the inactive ones. Although I never insist on reciprocity, maintaining a lurking connection does not make sense to me.

I do not care much about the mayorships or the points I gather, but the awards are sometimes surprisingly rewarding. And a remark like ‘you have not been in a harbour since San Diego’, ‘welcome back to Italy’ or ‘You were here just five months ago’ is good for a digital smile. When you receive a “Nerd Alert”, after checking in at 25 different book stores, you know Foursquare clearly gets your spatial profile.

Occasionally I will share my Foursquare check-in with my Facebook friends, just to let them know where I am at. At times I will do the same with Twitter, just to show my appreciation to Foursquare and to all my weak social ties, and beyond.

you know Foursquare clearly gets your spatial profile

If actions must have benefits and -just fun- does not suffice, checking in -and seeing others do the same- has the benefit of a higher spatial consciousness: you feel spatially connected to friends at places, where you actually are not yourself. At times we happen to be physically close to one another, which has led to an occasional extra cup of coffee at a railway station. Feeling spatially connected is a big payoff for spatial thinkers.

Foursquare surves as a personal spatial diary (where was that restaurant we went to last year) and one you can easily share with your friends. Checking in at locations can have pecuniary benefits as well. I have enjoyed free drinks and discounts on dinners (I am very Dutch) by checking into venues. Sometimes I just forget to claim the discount, but at least I had an interesting dinner conversation.

Since my Foursquare connections have solved the social media puzzle in a different way, I see people check in at their grandmothers house, their own home (it should not be too difficult to become the mayor of that), the birthday party of their children, a mix of all of the above. It is the ‘double fun’ aspect of foursquare.

A big benefit to geographers is contributing to a better map of the world. That means also reporting when venues have moved or when they are in the wrong position. I do that occasionally, should do that more often. In case you wonder: the wisdom of the crowd is not at work within Foursquare, since users influence each other when they check-in. Independent check-ins (e.g. not seeing popular venues or venues with existing users) would be needed for that (see James Surowiecki).

It seems any discussion on the use of social media brings the privacy topic to the table and rightfully so. Citizens have different levels of trust towards firms and governments and this trust varies from country to country as well. That trust will be nullified in case of a security breach. One of the reasons for me to use different social media channels is that the thought of entrusting all my data to one corporation is not very comforting to me, however benign that corporation presents itself.

Foursquare cares about the privacy of its users and the policy seems solid. Tips you give on Foursquare are publicly accessible, when you upload photos you are offered on open to the world / only for your network option. Foursquare has a ‘private’ option, meaning your check-in will not be disclosed to your connections, just to you and Foursquare. There are also settings available related to your visibility in your network or to the owners of a venue.

My check-ins are mostly geographically correct, meaning I am actually at that location. But I do think twice before checking in at a location, selectively revealing where I am at. If the real location is possibly problematic (e.g. the office of a prospect), I will just check-in at a nearby station. The real privacy option in Foursquare is off course not checking in at all, ever (paraphrasing Eric Schmidt..).


Nice cartography courtesy of MapBox with a litte help from the great OpenStreetMap community

So what about the Foursquare obligation*?

My main point: the vast amount of spatial data collected, whether voluntary with Fourquare or similar apps, or involuntary, by a trace on your phone, has a huge impact on geographic data at large. This will change the way we make maps in the very near future. If you want to stay abreast of these developments, there is no escape but to experiment and experience it yourself.

Geographers should have some idea about how this kind of data may affect the perfect map. My advice is to try Foursquare out for a fix period of time (e.g. 10 weeks) and consider if the benefit subtracted by the effort is positive. Just contributing to a better map and a better point-of-interest should be worth the Foursquare endeavor. Apart from that, the visualisations based on check-ins are really amazing and it is great to contribute to those as well.

And what I got out of it now: a chance to gather and publish a few thoughts beyond the length of the average tweet (taking Jason Lanier and his “Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection” very serious). Without any obligation and regardless of how many people check into my blog.

*Maybe the title of a movie-to-be, in which case I will not claim the rights to the title once the movie has been released.


[note: wrote this before PRISM was revealed..]

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