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Where 2.0 – Day 2 Location Technology For Fun And Helping People

OK, so there was no Google announcement on Thursday, or explanation of what “Google Goggles” are/will be. The red/green glasses Lior Ron was handing out yesterday (at a talk that was supposed to be about “Goggles”, but wasn’t) were a reference to today’s Google April fools joke: Street View in 3D.

While there were fewer references to social location applications and “check-ins” today, there were still more plenary sessions that leaned heavily on that category. Keynote kickoff Kati London began the morning with a review of mobile gaming; Skyhook Wireless built most of the examples in their talk around social location; and Facebook, newcomer to location but dominant incumbent in social networks, riffed on it.

It is a shame that something so fundamentally trivial as social location was the dominant theme, but this year it clearly was. Even the technically interesting launch of SimpleGeo was coloured by the fact that so many of their example use cases are in fulfilling the needs (index all the tweets, index all the check ins) of social location applications.

I think I find social location unimpressive because it’s just a lifestyle application. The founder of Foursquare was asked what his “big goal” was and he said it was to make peoples lives more interesting. He’s a fun guy who wants other people to have fun. Which is great stuff, but not technologically transformative. There might be money in social location (for someone), but it’s not going to change the way I deliver other solutions to people.

The previous Where 2.0 topics that have really transformed my professional world have been new platforms: consumer map APIs; free globe viewers; ubiquitous location on devices. I told a number of folks at Where 2.0 that we have become jaded, expecting to see the industry shaken each and every year. But not this year.

Moving on, in the morning plenary ESRI delivered, as usual, an impressive demo of a their new online service site. It is truly amazing how much new product a billion dollar organization can churn out in a year.

If I have misgivings, they are the usual ones. First, that ESRI tends to toss a lot of spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks, and I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to which parts of this years pot of pasta will stick in the long run. ESRI has been releasing a new map sharing portal every two years for as long as I can remember. Second, that the ESRI story works best if you are already on the ESRI ranch; they continue to be a platform play, they don’t want you to take just one bite, they want you to eat the whole turkey.

None of this is to say that this year won’t be “the year” for the ESRI portal, but there are no guarantees.

The uplifting part of Where 2.0 got only a little bit of plenary time (but a fair number of talks touched on it), and that was a re-counting of the extraordinary effect of the CrisisCamp movement in actually assisting the relief efforts after the Haitian earthquake. The combination of institutional willingness to share imagery data very quickly, volunteer effort to process and map from that data, and the existing OpenStreetMap data to manage and publish the data actually saved lives.

Port au Prince went from being effectively unmapped to highly mapped in just days. Community effort not only helped mapping, but also (for those who could speak the language) on translating SMS messages from survivors, converting place references into coordinates (using the new maps) and passing that information back to emergency responders on the ground.

It was as crystal clear an example of the power of community effort, open tools, and open data as I have seen. And it appears that the example is now being used to open eyes in the corridors of power about the need to ensure that collaborative infrastructure is in place and ready to run before the next crisis finds us. The Birds of a Feather session on Open Aerial Map was inspirational for the passion of the participants and their recognition of the real-world importance be bringing this piece of digital infrastructure up to speed.

So this year’s Where 2.0 in a sentence: location technology can help people have fun, and it can also just plain help people. Good news all around.

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