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Has Geospatial Technology Finally Gone Mainstream? A Report from SXSW Interactive 2010 – Part 2

By Matt Hiland
May 28, 2010

In the second part of the Location Based Services (LBS) workshop, Tasso Roumeliotis of WaveMarket delved a little deeper into some of the technology and issues with LBS implementation. As previously mentioned, all mobile phones are locatable, but less than twenty percent of them are smart phones. While smart phones are growing, the others are not going away any time soon. So, for LBS to reach the non-smart phones, the applications must reside on the server side and must use “network initiated location” rather than device initiated location. The advantages of this approach are that the technology is already in place to use the location of all phones and that no apps must be downloaded to the devices. The constraints are (1) privacy concerns with location of a device not initiated by its user/owner; (2) complex permission management required for the end user to set which applications and people are allowed to use their location; and (3) every carrier implements this capability differently and has a different API for accessing it. One approach to solving these issues is a new class of services titled “location aggregation.” Some examples of location aggregators are Loc-Aid ( and Veriplace® (

Location aggregation provides access to a user’s location – as long as the user grants access – by WAP, Web, SMS, Widget, and Mobile applications. The location aggregation provider manages the varied methods and interfaces across multiple carriers and exposes a single API to developers. The provider also provides privacy and security management, parental controls, and regular security and compliance audits. Location aggregation should help significantly lower the barrier to entry for location-enabled application development. Also, with the improved management of privacy, it should help users become more comfortable with applications using their location. Mr. Roumeliotis suggested that the general end users’ comfort level with LBS is rising, but there will likely be a backlash at some point when users who have casually signed up for something realize that they don’t like what they signed up for. However, similar to what we’ve seen with online use of credit cards, the comfort level will improve as trust in application providers builds.

The other presentations I saw were not nearly as interesting as the two by WaveMarket. Because Mom taught me “if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all,” I’ll leave it with a couple of blanket statements. First, I really hope that we will find something more meaningful to do with LBS than deliver advertisements and coupons. Second, based on my experience and in my opinion, developers who have a deep understanding of GIS and related concepts and technologies are still needed to deliver high quality location enabled applications. Just as geographers shouldn’t expect to learn overnight how to build a web application that serves millions of daily users, developers and designers shouldn’t assume that because they can learn the GoogleMaps API they know how to make good maps or perform spatial analysis.

In a final note, music writer Austin Powell of the Austin Chronicle led off his weekly column with “Checking in is the new tweeting,” implying that LBSs such as Gowalla (Austin-based winner of the 2010 SXSW Web Award for Mobile) and Foursquare are the next coolest thing and are poised to explode the way Twitter has in the last year. But, how does this answer the question in the title? While there are still some issues to be ironed out, geospatial technologies are becoming very cool and are likely to continue to grow in the depth and breadth of available applications. However, geospatial technologies have not become commoditized the way that spreadsheets and email have, nor are they expected to any time soon. So, expect to still see plenty of geospatial technology jobs still out there, but maybe in some new, surprising, and exciting places.