Google Wants Your Location Data To Go Public–Here’s Why

Perhaps we need to add “real time” to the old saying “location, location, location.”

Google Wants Your Location Data To Go Public–Here’s Why

Where are you standing or sitting right now–do you know exactly? Your smartphone does, down to a meter or two, even if it’s snuggled in the depths of a bag or stuck way down in a jeans pocket. And soon, it may be broadcasting that location in all sorts of publicly viewable places.


And soon enough you’re going to be okay with that. Gotten over your NSA-snooping fears yet?

Google’s Waze integration today is proof positive that user location data is going to become more public quicker than you may think. Essentially Waze relies on crowdsourced data to refine its maps and to report in real time on traffic events like accidents or jams. If Google’s building Waze data into its maps service like this, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s going to be persuading as many Google users as it can to either volunteer this sort of data personally, or to passively imply it (via their smartphone location feeds). With enough users taking part in this sort of crowdsourcing effort, real-time traffic alerts and other tricks in Google Maps are going to be self-evidently more useful. So there’s a real benefit here for people who opt in, and that’ll prompt many more folks to take part–which means voluntarily giving Google data on your real-time location, albeit maybe anonymously.

Google’s own John Hanke has also hit the news today with a Google-related location service. In a piece at the Washington Post, Hanke is busy talking up Field Trip, Google’s highly location-aware service that will prompt users with an alert “when there’s a point of interest nearby, such as a historic statue or a restaurant that got a good review from a local blog.” For this to work, if you think about it, a user has to be permanently sharing their location with Google’s various services: It’s just going to be useless without this system. As Hanke sees it, Google helped teach smartphone users to work out where they were and, as the post puts it, “Google Maps trained us to follow directions. Now its former developer wants us to explore.” He says Field Trip doesn’t store that data, but instead tallies up when users trigger one of the Field Trip alerts–so it’s merely keeping track of where people are setting its alerts off in real time.

Separately Apple’s next-gen iPhone operating system is coming up, and iOS 7 has a surprising little secret built right into it: Deep inside the privacy settings is a section labeled “Frequent locations.” The settings page alerts iPhone users that you can flip a switch to “allow your iPhone to learn places you frequently visit in order to provide useful location-related information.” You can also flip a switch to allow Apple to “use your frequent location information information to improve Maps.” Beneath that is a short list of places you’ve been recently and frequently, and you can even see these on a map.

The revelation about iOS 7 has already stirred up some fuss online, but this overlooks the fact users can simply throw the digital switches on the page and prevent Apple from doing this location-sensing. And once you get over this, it’s easy to see that Apple really does have a lot of location-based services planned for its iDevices, perhaps as a smarter shopping service than its own Apple-specific and location-aware Store app. Apple is busy building its own Maps app to rival Google after a prolonged spat, and it’s evidently hoping that it can use user data instead of sending out an expensive fleet of tracking cars to drive the world’s roads.

And lest you think all this is nonsense, and the average smartphone user wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing their real-time location data with a company like Google or Apple for fear of the NSA snooping over their shoulder, it turns out that consumers are pretty happy to do so…as long as there’s a reward. A fresh study by Placecast asked 2,000 consumers if–assuming they gave permission–they’d be interested in getting smartphone alerts about new products or sales or restaurants on their device. 45% said they were “somewhat” interested, which is a dramatic upswing from 2009’s 26%. Asked if such location alerts would be useful to them, over 75% said they’d be useful, and more relevant than other coupon-based promotions. 87% said location-aware ads would make them aware of locations they’d previously not visited.


That means that for shopping at least consumers would be happy to tell a name like Google or Apple their location…which may also imply they’re happy to share more personal preference data in order to receive precisely tailored coupons. And this practice is already underway via the app Foursquare, which was recently revealed to have sold location data to third parties in order to enable location-aware advertisements outside the confines of the Foursquare app.

What does this mean for developers? You need to get savvy quickly on the privacy requirements and permissions needed for you to collect users’ location data. And you could probably profit from quickly devising ways to reward users for sharing their location, rather than simply grabbing it from their phones.

[Image: Flickr user Rob Brewer]

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