With the news that earlier this month the Air Force launched a new GPS satellite that can resolve your location down to a few feet, a growing number of location-based services are getting lots of attention for their ability to create new social opportunities. Just the other day I met up with an acquaintance at a local grocery store: he was updating his status on Foursquare as I was checking to see who else I knew on the service was in the store. I looked around and said hello, and we both went about our business, back to interacting with our iPhones.
While Foursquare.com is the most popular, there are numerous other services including Yelp.com, Google’s Latitude, Whrrl.com, Loopt.com, Brightkite.com, and Gowalla.com. There is even a site called checkinmania.com that will track updates on three of these sites and mash them up on a Google map together. These services all work in a similar fashion: you download the app to your smartphone or use an ordinary Web browser to indicate your current location. The smartphone apps can make use of the built-in GPS to determine where you are and present you with a list of potential businesses nearby. You claim one of these as your current location (or create a new listing) and the app notifies all your contacts where you are. The downside is that you need to create a new network of contacts for each service, although some of them can leverage your existing Twitter or Facebook address list. Users get awarded points for frequent check-ins and get to display that they are “mayors” of places that they frequent. (For some odd reason, I am the mayor a drug store near my sister’s apartment in New York City. Go figure.)
But apart from providing new opportunities for stalkers and thieves (pleaserobme.com is one notable site that used to list homes that were unoccupied based on the occupant’s status messages), what can IT managers learn from these apps?
First, if you are going to get involved with these services, decide early on which one you are recommending, if you are indeed going to recommend any, for your user base to get behind. Each service has its own network and can’t share information elsewhere, other than on Twitter or Facebook. The Wall Street Journal now has an icon where readers can click on an “add to Foursquare” button similar to the numerous “ShareThis” sites.
Second, understand the privacy issues that you create if your employees start using these services frequently. Should you be able to monitor someone’s whereabouts during off hours? What if they are supposed to be a business trip to Boise, but are really having a soiree in Boston? Do the usage of these apps fall under the responsibility of the human resources, legal, or IT departments? Certainly, you should take a look at your existing privacy policies and make sure you are covered. An article that tackles the larger issues (think EZPass toll collection devices and red light cameras) can be found on the Electronic Frontier’s web site here.
Next, if you don’t have any corporate policy with what employees link to their Facebook and Twitter accounts, even their private accounts, now is the time to give this issue more thought. Should your people be permitted or prohibited to tie these location services into their status messages? Should you care that some of the status messages are not suitable for the workplace?
If you have a retail business with an actual physical address, these location services have become new ways to attract customers. You can use the location services to publish limited time discounts or other offers for frequent visitors. Many Bay Area restaurants are doing this, for example, (and even a few here in St. Louis) and the entry cost is minimal. Some consumer product companies are beginning to pitch to Foursquare mayors as the influencers of their particular locations. Writing for a blog seems like so yesterday. And I have written about Aisle411, a startup company that is going very location specific by allowing consumers to find the specific aisle in a big box store that they are in.
Finally, these services can represent yet another tool in the arsenal of digital background checks that hiring managers can use to research your past. That means you might want to reconsider whether or not to post that you are doing shots night after night at the local bar, or even that you are at the local bar night after night.