Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Bringing Where and When Together: The Opportunity for Live Maps

Knowing where a person or a service provider is located is much more useful when you know how that location relates to you. How far away are they? How long will it take them to get here? Are they here yet? Smartphone apps are making that more possible than ever.

More and more apps I see take advantage of an emerging and highly useful mobile interface — a live map — that indicates where a person or service provider is located in real time.

Live maps are tricky — what could be more of an invitation to stalking and unwanted tracking than telling people exactly where you are in that moment? — but they have great potential.

For instance, a new iPhone app called Twist was released today that helps users send estimated arrival times to people they are trying to meet up with.

Before a Twist user leaves for a destination, she tells the app where she’s going and who she is going to meet. Throughout the trip, Twist recalculates her arrival time depending on traffic, mode of transportation and the tracking of her actual location. Both the sender and receiver can see her travel across town on a live map, and they also get text or push notifications about her ETA.

Twist seems a bit like a more polished version of Glympse, which is an app I use with my family all the time to send each other short-term live maps when we’re on our way home or to pick each other up.

Twist adds some nice features like a home screen that calculates the current travel time to bookmarked locations like home or school, and integration with the phone user’s calendar events to automatically suggest upcoming destinations.

Some places you could imagine using Twist are for carpools and business meetings — especially useful for those of us who tend to run late. Or perhaps you could do something more creative, like bring the guest of honor to a surprise party and surreptitiously tell everyone when you both will arrive so everyone else doesn’t have to crouch behind couches shushing each other.

There’s a lot of accountability to this interface — you can’t fudge where you’re going if someone can see your actual location in real time. That may be a plus for some users and a downside for others.

It’s particularly important that Twist and similar apps stay respectful of sharing users’ actual locations only with the intended recipients. Sharing live locations is something people will always be fearful of, and with good reason. But we’re approaching one billion global smartphones by 2016; the times and expectations are changing.

Where I could see Twist and Glympse live mapping features being really useful is as a part of other products. For instance:

  • People who RSVP for an event on Google, Facebook or elsewhere could all share their location while en route.
  • Within the course of a regular text message conversation, one person could send the other a live map.
  • A restaurant sending out food for delivery could show the recipient where the driver is en route. (I’ve heard of multiple companies working on exactly this issue.)
  • The ride-hailing app Uber has a very nice live map interface that shows all the local cars’ locations, and an estimated arrival time once one is chosen.
  • All sorts of other smartphone apps like Exec — a way to request instant part-time assistants — have created their own Uber-like interfaces, and tend to call themselves “the Uber for X.” Actually, Twist co-founder Bill Lee told me you could think of his app as “the Uber for people.”
  • Some fitness apps like RunKeeper allow users to live-broadcast their activities so people can check on how they are doing, encourage them and make sure they are safe.
  • Live maps are a safety feature for the wacky new peer-to-peer taxi app, Sidecar. Users can send out a “Share ETA” text to a friend with a link to a live map, making the prospect of getting into a stranger’s car a little less daunting.

Multiple companies hope to enable other people’s live maps. For instance, Bill Lee of Twist said he plans to release a public API, while Skyhook today launched developer tools that promise to persistently track location with less battery drain.

What’s interesting is that early social location apps like Loopt and Google Latitude actually started with this kind of persistent location tracking, but they both shifted toward more selective check-ins when Foursquare was on the rise.

But the reign of check-ins may be waning. These days, Foursquare itself has reduced its emphasis on check-ins and moved toward providing local information to users who might not want to broadcast their exact venue.

Meanwhile, Google Latitude is having a revival of sorts in the new Google Now for Android, which uses persistent location tracking to establish users’ patterns and anticipate what information they need in a particular place — like the next arrival times at a bus stop.

Still, it’s really not that thrilling to watch someone move around a map. Often, it will be what the map enables: Some users will prefer just to get notifications about ETAs generated by the maps. Some people will want those public transit times and commute length estimates. Others might just appreciate the added accountability that pushes food deliveries and cab drivers to arrive on time.

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— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”