Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Location-Aware: The Future of Social Networking

Well, now that NPR has done a story on location-aware cell phone services, the urban-dwelling, latte-sipping, 30-something professionals will be talking about it, so I'd better throw my two cents into the mix. (Disclaimer: I am a total NPR junkie, so don't take offence to my characterization of NPR listeners.)


For the non-latte-sipping crowd, when I say "location aware," I'm simply talking about using GPS (Global Positioning System) data in different applications, usually on a cell phone. For the most part, this is currently limited to simply reporting your location and drawing a map.

My experiments with location-aware social networking.

About three years ago, when location-enabled cell phones started to become available in the United States, I played around with Mologogo, a very bare-bones application which took my cell phone's GPS position and published it to the web. Unfortunately, it worked only on a limited number of Nextel and Boost Mobile (Nextel's pre-paid service) phones, so I had to buy a Boost Mobile prepaid phone for this one application. The application did nothing more than report my location to a website. Unfortunately, Mologogo was very buggy and, while it provided an interface to integrate with my own applications, I wanted something more out-of-the-box.

Things have improved (but only marginally) since then and I've moved on to Ipoki, which reports my location to a website and my Facebook profile, without much trouble on my part. Ipoki also has the advantage of running on my Sprint phone, so I don't have to carry a THIRD cell phone around. The current application crashes frequently, which is annoying, but somewhat tolerable. If you would like to follow me, feel free: http://www.ipoki.com/maps/aaronhurd. I'll make no guarantees about keeping Ipoki on.

My Complaints.

Unfortunately, both of these applications suck battery life. I have no idea what my current phone (HTC Touch Pro, Sprint) will do, but it's been my experience that most GPS applications require a persistent connection to the Internet, which drains a phone battery in about two hours. An application running on a mobile phone is of limited utility if it must be tethered to the power grid.

Other than battery life, here are my top feature requests:
  • Integration with Social Networks AND Privacy Settings - I do not want to share my location with just anyone and I want to be able to integrate with Facebook.
  • Updates to Twitter, Facebook, etc., based on location. - If I am at Stomping Grounds in Ames, I want my Facebook status to read, "Aaron is at Stomping Grounds in Ames." Even cooler would be time-based updates, so if I'm at John Deere between 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., my status can read, "Aaron can't sleep, so he's gone to work early."
  • Automatic geo-tagging of social media content. - If I post a picture to Facebook from my cell phone, attach my location to it.
Finally, the United States mobile phone carriers are notorious for locking the features on their phones, preventing cool applications like Ipoki and Mologogo from accessing the GPS applications. (Verizon is especially notorious for this.) They claim that it's so that they can have network stability, but most of the rest of the world allows users to use unlocked equipment with few problems . . .

The Future.

As social networking becomes more location-aware, we will certainly see some interesting things happening in the future. Here's an abbreviated list of my predictions:
  • Location data will be aggregated to provide general information, such as traffic reports (UC Berkeley is already experimenting with this).
  • Advertising, advertising, advertising. Expect the US cell phone carriers to try to get location-based advertising on your phone any way they can. When you walk by Starbucks, they'll offer you a free ringtone with your latte.
  • It will become common practice for parents track their children by installing software on their cell phones. (All major US cell phone carriers are currently selling this service.) This will quickly become obsolete as children learn how to disable these services. Cheating spouses, however, had better beware.
  • Location data will be used to improve quality of service: Airports, for example, could use this data to map passenger paths through terminals, marry this data to flight schedules and use this to figure out which airplane should park where.
  • People will be automatically informed when their friends are in the area, so that they can meet up in person. This will be a rare case of technology fostering real social interaction.
Well, that's my Tuesday @ 5:00 a.m. brain-dump on location-aware services. What are your predictions? Do you use location-aware services on your mobile phone? I'm looking to experiment with some other applications, so if you have any suggestions of apps I should look at, go ahead and send them my way.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lessons Learned from Parents' Basement Flood

This weekend, I spent a significant amount of time clearing everything out of my parents' basement. About half of the stuff in the basement was ruined, but it taught two important lessons:

1. Backups are worthless, unless they are regular and stored off-site.

My parents faithfully backed up their financial data every week to a floppy disk, which they stored right by the computer. Unfortunately, the pipe that broke soaked their computer and their backup disks. We haven't yet tried to recover the data, but if we do, we will have dodged a bullet.

2. Paper records are a pain and often not needed.

Since everything had to come out of my parents' basement, I got exposure to the amount of paper records that they keep. Frankly, I think that people keep a lot more records than they need to. Whether it's a credit card statement or bank statement, the bank can always pull back statements (usually for a fee). I think that the headache saved by not needing to manage records is well-worth the $50 that I might spend pulling a few years of bank statements. Many paper records were destroyed; it will be interesting to see if they actually need them.

For the records that DO need to be stored, I generally scan and store these on my computer, and then sort through them once a year. I think that this is a good practice.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Social Engagement

One of the things that I would like to do during this next year is to become more socially engaged. (I’m waiting to hear back from some interviewing that I’ve done at Deere before I become committed, because I’d hate to commit to something and then leave in a few months.)

At Deere, employees are encouraged to contribute to United Way (my thoughts about that are in another post) and to participate in build days with Habitat for Humanity. Habitat for Humanity is great, but when they push the religious angle, it really turns me (and several others) off. I really feel that promoting these two programs (at the exclusion of others) encourages employees to ignore the myriad ways in which they can contribute.

There are thousands of ways in which we can be involved in our communities, but we don’t encourage social engagement generally. I think that it would be great to get some sort of partnership going with a local school and have engineers tutoring math, or helping to teach language, or going to speak with classes. I’d love to go speak with German classes about where their language skills can take them. (I actually do this, on my own time.) A colleague suggested recently that Deere give a few “social engagement” days, in addition to vacation days, so that employees can contribute to their communities in ways in which they feel most comfortable. This is a great idea, and something that I think we should push at Deere.

What do you do to be socially engaged? Do you think that this is important?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Saving Time by Batching Tasks

One my new New Year's Resolutions is to eliminate some tasks that are unnecessary, freeing up more time for the things I really want to do.

The first target is my postal mail. I love mail. In fact, when I was living with Tim, we would often swing by the house to pick up the mail during lunch. It was great, I processed all of my mail immediately and got it out of my inbox. Good, right? Wrong.

Dropping by the house and processing mail every day caused about 20 minutes of overhead . . . that's over two hours a week. Two hours a week for mail? Really? That sounds a bit insane. After all, there is NOTHING in the mail that can't wait for a week. So, I am now checking mail only on Wednesdays. Everything will be put in a basket and be processed on Wednesdays. This will save me about two hours a week.