"You give me any [location] in the world, I can predict where people will be 15 minutes from now," said Dennis Crowley, co-founder of the location-based service Foursquare. He spoke at the March 19 gathering of the New York Tech Meetup, where he had launched the social check-in service roughly four years earlier.
From a fledgling startup debuting at South by Southwest Interactive in 2009, Foursquare has grown into a global network with 30 million members who have "checked in" (i.e. broadcast their location) 3 billion times at 50 million locations. On its website, Foursquare writes that "millions more" people check in each day.
To illustrate how much that says about people, Crowley showed a time-lapse image of lower Manhattan (where Foursquare is based) and a sliver of Brooklyn with raw data from Foursquare over the course of the day. In the image, the city lit up with streaks of color that originated in certain areas, such as transit hubs, and spread out, showing not just where people go, but the types of things they do — yellow representing spots such as coffee shops, green and blue depicting nightlife activities. [See video ]
Pulsing with activity, the map resembled illustrations of the brain in action, with flashes of light depicting the symphony of firing synapses.
Crowley said that Foursquare has collected enough data to not only know where people go and what they enjoy, but to predict where they will go and what they will enjoy in the future. "If you tell me five things that you like in San Francisco — I can predict 20 things that you're going to like in New York or Chicago," said Crowley.
The data don’t just go to Foursquare's network, but also power other location-based services. Even if you've never used Foursquare, you may have interacted with it, said Crowley. Foursquare provides the names of locations people select for tagging Instagram photos or Vine videos, for example, said Crowley.
Foursquare is a mobile app that people choose to download and enable. And it remains their choice whether or not to check in at any location and whether to broadcast the fact. "We've had a lot of success with explicit check-ins," said Crowley. "In order for your friends to know where you are, you have to say, 'I am at NYU.'"
But he also said that Foursquare is working on ways in the future to collect data in the background. "You download Foursquare, you walk around the city for a week and we know, 'OK, you like coffee in the morning and you like this sushi place, you spend a lot of time in this neighborhood,'" he said, explaining that background data collection would allow the service to make recommendations not only where someone lives, but in new places they visit.
"I don't think we would explicitly share that [information] without someone's permission," Crowley added.
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