If you track technology news, you’ve probably heard that this year’s South by Southwest Interactive (SxSWi) is all about more easily sharing location. New companies such as Highlight, Sonar and Kismet are making big showings -- allowing us to overshare our every movement. It would seem that the next big thing for creating an engaging social experience is location, location, location, but that’s not the full story.


Beyond Location3

Ambient location is a hot topic at SxSWi. There are keynotes, countless sessions and vendor demonstrations about services that allow users to broadcast their location to inform friends, create new social connections or avoid missing a business networking opportunity only a few feet away.

Robert Scoble has thrown his weight behind the concept, fueling a stream of articles about these apps inevitably rising to dominate the social networking space the same way previous SxSWi breakouts Twitter and Foursquare did in previous years. I think these apps are interesting, and I’ll probably use a few occasionally, but the next step in social engagement is not location. It’s much larger.

Many people consider social networking a revolutionary step in how we use computers. At less than ten years old, it has become ubiquitous and is integrated in everything from junior high conversation to brand strategy at Fortune 500 companies. However, if we look at the social web in the larger context of human behavior, Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 only provided tools that allowed users to do what humans have done for our entire existence – interact with other humans. Before Facebook, Twitter and Google+, there was the IRC and bulletin board systems and after web 2.0 becomes passé, there will be yet another generation of tools designed to move computer facilitated human-to-human communication closer to becoming more like real-world interactions.

This isn’t a sociology class, so why should you care? Understanding this evolution is the key to delivering online experience that appeal to your users’ core. Ambient location may be generating buzz now, but the larger, longer-term trend will be about collecting and using contextual details without user intervention (e.g. no checkins or explicit posts) and providing personalized and contextually accurate experiences.

Getting Contextual

Context is about understanding environmental details for users, and location is only one of an almost endless list of attributes. Where have they been before? Who are their friends? What do their friends like? What do people of a similar age, gender and location like? What was the user doing in the minutes before they used the app? Most humans can discern subtle details, while computers excel at storing and analyzing the data for subtle patterns. When these competencies are combined, it is possible to deliver a personalized experience that appeals to your audience.

Before the mobile and social revolution, personal contextual details were sparse -- a user name, maybe a few facts where the user works and resides, but that has changed. Users now have rich digital identities that include even the most mundane details about our being. The profiles are only becoming more detailed as society embraces mobile technology and is essential constantly connected to their digital and real-world universe. This is the next big thing: Contextual awareness. I am even more certain of this as I look around sessions, hallways and parties to see bowed heads paying reverence to their devices with a stream of tweets, status updates and photos.


Yesterday, I attended a few sessions at SxSW that explored how new data points collected via mobile devices and social can be leveraged to create better social engagement. In Extracting an Emotional Story from Mobile Datasets, Jim Gemmel, Sr. Researcher, Microsoft, explored how capturing, storing and presenting data collected from mobile devices creates an amazingly accurate digital representation of real-world life and identity. Social + Location + Mobile = The Perfect Beer used the niche beer market to look at how contextual details were used to improve customer engagement.


Investigating Social Mechanisms with Mobile Phones Session (notice bowed heads)

The most interesting session I attended was Investigating Social Mechanisms with Mobile Phones by Nadav Aharony of MIT Media Lab. The computational social science team performed a 15-month study of a young residential community using sensor data collected from mobile phones. In addition to a better understanding of human behavior, researchers created an open source framework, funf, for collecting sensor data on mobile devices. Out of the box it can collect:

  • GPS
  • Cell tower ID
  • Call and SMS log
  • Contacts
  • Running apps
  • Screen state
  • Installed apps
  • Browser history
  • Music/image/video file scans

and much more. The framework also has several configuration options such as how often data is collected and if it’s automatically uploaded. The functionality, which is enough to make any privacy crusader cringe, is free and easy to use, but limited to Android devices for now. 

Ambient location apps are cool. They allow users to provide a bit more context to their digital universe as effortlessly as smiling at someone in the physical world. However, like social media, the technology will soon become a commodity as users look for the next thing that makes interacting via a computer more like meeting someone for lunch.

Title image from Cienpies Design (Shutterstock).