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Local Govs Should Check Out Location Check-Ins

This week, location based service Foursquare announced its new features to enhance the social check-in experience. They also reiterated their vision to go beyond “a game built on check-ins” into “making cities easier to use.” Foursquare isn’t just trying to find out whether you’re at the coffee shop or a night club; they’re gaining insight into what motivates behavior to frequent local establishments. And the astonishing amount of data they collect can be a treasure trove for local public policy decisions.


Some cities have experimented with Foursquare, Gowalla, or other location based service for touristy reasons. It’s a great way for visitors to learn more about points of interest and public artifacts. I think this is a great way for cities to gain street cred with the mobile generation. However, the real value is in the data.

What can the data tell us?

1. Where people are and when they’re there.

This is valuable data when cities are trying to decide where to add new public resources. Parking lots, public restrooms, trash cans, street lamps, benches, etc. If city officials knew exactly which blocks are used most heavily at what times, this could be a significant input into their decision. Or perhaps public transit is looking into increase the frequency of routes during a certain time period. There are many public decisions that could greatly benefit from these analytics.

2. Why people go where they go

Besides just checking-in, users can leave tips, to-dos, and photos. This layer of data reveals, to an extent, the motivation behind why people go where they go. Restaurant goers recommend their favorite dish or warn others of negative experiences. If cities have some insight into behavior and motivation, this could be a great resource for economic development plans, small business resources, and new businesses.

3. How merchants respond

Some location-based services also allow merchants to offer incentives to attract potential users. The new Foursquare merchant platform extends special offers for swarms, groups of friends, newbies, regulars, Mayors, or everyone. Seeing how consumers and merchants respond to one another can also be a great resource for cities looking to sharpen their economic development strategy.

There’s no doubt that the data is rich and can be very beneficial to policy makers. Yes, there will be significant hurdles along the way, such as:

  • The handling of Big Brother privacy invasion
  • The provider’s terms of service.
  • The provider’s willingness to share. Maybe Foursquare doesn’t want to play with government because there are more lucrative partnerships elsewhere.
  • The needed increase of users for more robust data. This is still relatively underused by the general public, but the trend is pointing to increased adoption.

I’m not saying this is a revolutionary device that will transform how government does business. I’m not even suggesting cities go and start placing trash cans outside the hottest hipster bars. I’m saying this is a potentially rich resource that can be considered when making certain public policy decisions.

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Profile Photo Jon Lee

Thanks, Adriel. No, I haven’t looked into the type of data Foursquare or other services make available, but a lot of the “behavioral” data is already public. It would be great if somebody could build an app to mine all this data!

Profile Photo Jon Lee

Hi Jean-Paul, thanks for sharing your post. I don’t think Facebook Places will supplant Foursquare, Gowalla, or Yelp as the preferred check in service because

1) About half of my Facebook friends don’t live in my city so I could care less where they’re at

2) I don’t want to use prime real estate on my wall for a check in, unless there’s some significance to my location (most of the time there isn’t)

3) Facebook already has a reputation for not respecting people’s privacy. This just adds to the mistrust.

4) The mobile interface for Places is still pretty clunky

Profile Photo Jon Lee

Nice insight, Jean-Paul. Well, keeping with the Microsoft example, they could have thrown their weight at the mobile OS market but didn’t do enough, and now they’re playing catch up. I don’t think Google Places will take off either. People just don’t think of Google as a social platform.

And yes, the success of LBS providers probably comes down to advertisements and translating check-ins to dollars.

Profile Photo Jon Lee

Thanks for sharing the link, Dustin. I like what you said about checking in at public spaces allows citizens to learn more about city spots in a fun and engaging format. It leads me to think about the policy implications too. If people leave negative tips about a library, such as “I don’t like coming here because there’s never enough parking”… could it prompt the city to lease a private building’s parking lot two blocks away to open more spots?

Foursquare.gov could become a two way communication channel, not just for gov to push information, but for citizens to comment back.