Watch Me As I Geolocate

You have probably heard about new social networking  services that allows friends to see where you are.  Facebook Places and Google's Latitude, among others,  offer such geolocation capabilities that have started to make an impression on individuals tethered to their smart-phones; on organizations looking to boost online engagement, increase revenue and build relationships; and on observers including privacy advocates who have begun to parse the social implications of these emerging technologies. 

For individuals, one of the most interesting parts of Latitude (by Google) and Places (by Facebook) is that you can more easily connect with friends on the go, and happily explore nearby places that perhaps you didn't know about.  For example, at 9:30 on a Monday morning, you might discover that your friend John and your eccentric aunt Tillie are together in your favorite fancy restaurant which happens to be near-by.  Could they be making arrangements for your surprise birthday party? 

For businesses, associations, nonprofits and other social-sector organizations, geolocation data provided through these services offers new ways to reach out and engage key audiences.  It is not too difficult to imagine the local Baskin Robbins inviting diners to buy a half-priced scoop for friends who may happen to be near-by.  How about participants in a marathon race, or participants in a walk-a-thon, to beam their whereabouts to friends?  You may have read about this being done with special sensors - now made easier and cheaper using ubiquitous cell phones.  I am sure others will come up with many other, and probably more creative, ideas than I can  on short notice.

However interesting and useful, the capabilities of emerging capabilities of geolocation empowered applications represent just the tip of the proverbial iceburg.  With APIs and other tools, both Facebook and Google provide ways for thrid party developers to create their own geolocation applications.  These will invariably lead to inniovations as far as their imaginations can see.  Here are a few possibilities, mixing the content of recent (or not so recent) Google searches with the individual's personal geolocation information:

  • Imagine that you're walking around downtown Washington, DC, New York, London, Peoria or Paducah and you get an alert on your phone that says "Yesterday you did a web search for Mick Jagger.  Tickets are available  for Mick and the Rolling who are performing here next month. Come get some tickets... you are only 1 block away. 
  • Imagine a cause organization or political candidate pushing out geo-targeted messages that remind individuals to stop by a nearby rally or campaign headquarters, identifying supporters by their recent online queries. 
  • Imagine the department of motor vehicles, reminding a nearby motorist to stop by and renew their license... Make a right at the next corner.

As it is no secret that smart phone applications like vlingo and viigo track searches and/or content consumed to push out targeted ads, these types of services are technologically feasible to implement - not at all far fetched.  The only question for marketing and communications folks is where to direct their target audiences.

While bringing forth powerful new tools for businesses, social sector organizations and govenment agencies, geolocation-driven services also enter us into a thicket of social issues.  Who should have access to location data, and who controls it?  What is acceptable use?  How do we prevent it from being misused?  Who is responsible if it is misused? How will geolocation services ultimately reshape our values and institutions as a society?  These are weighty issues that belong not just on the desks of legislators and in the dockets of courts, but also in the minds of those who advance and embrace these new tools.