This past December, Foursquare users noticed something a bit different about the way their app worked. When they visited new venues or even new neighborhoods, their phones would ping them with tips about the location or requests to check in. These push notifications were entirely passive—even if a phone was lying in a user's pocketbook unused, it would still alert them to tips about visiting the Mission District or having dinner at Peter Luger. But Foursquare's technology wasn't built on thin air: They leveraged a newish technique called geotriggering, which is working its way into more and more apps.
Geotriggering services are offered through a few different SDKs for developers to experiment with; the best known is provided by mapping giant Esri and chipmaker Qualcomm's Gimbal. Esri's Johan Herrlin told Co.Labs that the goal of their in-house Geotrigger SDK was to "create location awareness applications. We want developers to be able to create immersive experience in apps where messages and other events can be triggered based on your' phones location." He likened the function to an invisible button that, once triggered by a user's geographic presence, can launch all sorts of actions—not just tips to open Foursquare. Both Esri and Qualcomm offer geotriggering capabilities that go far beyond iOS and Android's built-in capabilities—for instance, they offer the ability to trigger events by a user browsing a particular store aisle or driving down a particular highway.
There's big business in coders shaping their apps to turn users' physical locations into event triggers. These triggers wildly vary. In two case studies offered up by Esri, geotriggers were used in retail and surveillance apps. On the advertising side, 7-11 and Pepsi teamed up for a geotriggering app to promote AMP Energy Drinks. Whenever a user was in close physical proximity to a 7-11 that stocked AMP, the app would automatically send a push notification to their phone that the store had the drinks in the fridge. This was an opt-in promotion—users had to download a special app and were rewarded by prizes and swag—that gave additional bonuses to downloaders who then scanned drink barcodes inside 7-11 stores.
Meanwhile, geotriggers were used by uKnow, a manufacturer of apps that let parents monitor their childrens' Internet activity, social media usage, and physical location. By adopting Esri's SDK, uKnow set up functionality that lets parents or caregivers have their phones automatically messaged whenever a child enters a location they geofenced—whether it's a school, a mall, or a friend's home. Uknow's app also keeps extensive records for parents of where and for how long the children are at each physical location; the only technological skill required is knowing how to input an address or a landmark into an app.
According to Herrlin, geotriggers are also used in apps for a variety of other purposes related to tracking users and incentivizing physical locations. For instance, app makers can build quiet customer logging capabilities into their app; anytime a user with an app running in the background for a store walks past that store, the geotrigger capability quietly triggers a note in the company's internal servers that the customer walked by. But the big usage area is for companies building internal apps for employees. He cited organizations that contacted Esri looking for a way for proprietary smartphone apps to automatically send messages to employees if a customer who has ordered items online enters their store. Other uses include proprietary apps for internal use at financial services organizations that contain geotriggers which only let the app be used at a secure location like an office; the geotrigger automatically notifies IT if a user attempts to log in from an insecure place like a coffee shop.
Photo by Nicolas Raymond