Sunday, June 22, 2008

When "where" = money, money, money

It's not just for gadget-lovers anymore -- GPS technology has invaded common tools such as cell phones. Millions of us are walking around leaving traces of data on where we're going and where we've been. And where there's scale, there's entrepreneurs scurrying after profits.

A Columbia professor and businessman have created Macrosense, a massive statistical-analysis engine for geo-data, the New York Times reported today.

Knowing where and when consumers move could be crucial for businesses seeking to expand or improve services, according to Tony Jebara and Gregory Skibiski, founders of Sense Networks. They have already tested their enormous engine with major finance and consumer firms, reporter Michael Fitzgerald writes.

Unfortunately, founders wouldn't tell Fitzgerald how they got all the geo-data. (Cue creepy music...)

But they have released a Joe-Shmo version for local Blackberry owners -- sorry, Jitterbug devotees -- called Citysense. The service will tell users where traffic is worst in San Francisco and where everyone else is going out, according to its Web site.

In other words, if you were holding out hope that the corner of Broadway and Columbus was traffic free, now you can be told definitively, every time, that it's awful. Joking aside, the service could be neat -- I haven't tried it yet. But I do know that the attempt to cash in on the cache of geo-data out there is going strong in Palo Alto, too.

Local entrepreneur Shailendra Jain's geo-tracking Web site Abaqus went live earlier this month. Abaqus enables anyone to track him or herself using geo-enabled devices, either with embedded software or software downloadable from the site.

Users then upload their tracks to the site, adding photos and notes to the maps if they wish –Look! I’m at the drug store! Look - now I’m on vacation in LA! –- to create geo-diaries.
I borrowed a GPS recorder from Jain and tracked myself hiking around Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park.
(You can see my “track” if you visit Abaqus; I made it public. It’s called, creatively, Hetch Hetchy.)

Diaries are the tip of the iceberg, Jain said. Like the Sense Networks founders, Jain sees dollar signs in geo-data. In the future, it could help business services such as online shopping sites, he said.

For now, he’s working on synching the site with other online services such as Flickr. And there are also personal uses such as tracking fitness or gas mileage.

Nowhere else can users simply store the data and fiddle with it later, he added.
"There's no [other] service that says 'Independent of what you want to use it for, just record it here,'" he explained earlier this month.

He was sitting in his downtown Palo Alto home office in front of an enormous world map, continents and oceans unfolding behind him. Alongside him were two computer screens covered in maps. This is a man who’s done a lot of thinking about location, I thought.

While some software costs about $10 to download now, depending on the device you want to upload to Abaqus with, Jain’s plan is to offer it all for free by the end of the year. He’ll make money through the partnerships with other Web services, he said. Read more about Abaqus in the Weekly article I wrote.
Or drop everything and go straight to the site to get the software yourself. You don’t want to be the last one without some sort of geo-tracking program running on your phone, do you? I thought not.

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