I had the honor of being on a panel at TWTRCON DC ’09 in Washington DC last week, on the topic of Twitter and Geolocation. Twitter is adding some new geolocation features soon, and my latest iPhone app, Myallo HotList, takes advantage of them. In our TWTRCON panel discussion I mentioned some of the topics in this article, and I’m glad to be able to flesh them out here.
What Twitter Can Do
Currently, Twitter has a “location” text string that you can put in your profile. You, or your twitter client app, can put anything in there “New York”, “14 Elm St. Huntington NY”, or “Mars”, whatever you want. A lot of Twitter client apps, that run on mobile devices can be set to automatically set that field to your location when you send a tweet – something like “iPhone: 38.855,-77.0412″. Other apps, like Myallo HotList, can see the latitude and longitude (or turn address strings into map coordinates) and plot these locations on a map. The screen shot at the right shows a Myallo HotList map of Washington DC the day of TWITERCON. My location was at the blur dot, and the Yellow and Orange dots are the locations of twitterers who sent tweets and also have set the location field. Most of them were probably tweets sent from mobile phones.
Twitter is adding a couple of new features that involve geolocation. The first is that we will be able to attach a map location to each tweet we send, and the second is a solid search ability for tweets sent from a specific geographic area. Myallo HotList is an early entry in a coming wave of apps that will use geolocation.
Suppose you are on a road trip, twittering your way around the country. If your mobile device’s twitter client adds your location to each tweet, another app could collect those tweets and place them on a map. It could show your route, the timing, and what you said at each location.
Suppose you want to know where your friends are. If they tweet, and if their device adds location to the profile (or soon, the individual tweets), and app can do a search for those tweets to find their locations. Or, it can ask for any tweets that were sent from a particular area. Myallo HotList can do both these things – It can list your Twitter friends and show where they are, and it can see who is tweeting in your area, as shown at right.
What About Security?
When I talk about these sort of things, the first comment I get is about security. “I don’t want strangers knowing exactly where I am all the time!” I couldn’t agree more. Do all those people Myallo HotList mapped in Washington DC even know they were sending their location out? Most probably did, but perhaps not all of them.
I’m a fan of a particular TV show, and one of the stars is a prolific twitterer. I set myself as one of her followers, and I noticed that her profile had map coordinates set. Myallo HotList was able to show me and zoom in on the exact Malibu house she was twittering from! Anyone typing the coordinates into a mapping web site could see just as well. I’m sure she did not know she was sending the location of her house to the public. In fact, I could tell which Twitter client she was using, and from a quick look at that app , I didn’t see a setting to turn off location-sending, or an indication that it is sending one. She has long since changed things, as her profile location merely says “Los Angeles” now, but there is a lesson to be learned here.
Twitter will have an “opt-in” mechanism for adding locations to individual tweets. When this feature is released, you will have to go to the website, and specifically turn that feature on before any app will be able to attach a location to an individual tweet. So, you’ll know if that is turned on.
Apps that use Twitter should of course have a clear switch for turning on or off the setting of a location. In Myallo HotList, not only is there such a switch, but there is another one that will randomize the location it sends. By default, instead of sending your exact coordinates, it randomizes them within about a 1 mile radius. Thus, it does show you are in town, but not the exact house. You have to fli the switch to make the coordinates be exact.
Making Twitter Geolocation More Secure
This is not enough, in my opinion. I’d like to see Twitter add more in the way of security. I have a few suggestions.
“Only let my followers see my location”: This could limit the people who can see your tweet locations to those who follow you. Others won’t get that information when you see their tweets.
“Only let these specific members see my location”: Twitter is adding another feature soon called “lists”. You can make a list of Twitter members (several in fact). I think it would be great if you can make such a list, perhaps with only a couple of your very best friends, and say only these people can see my location.
“Let all but these people see my location”: Maybe you are pretty loose about showing your location, but there are some you do not want to see. You might want an option like this.
“Let all my followers see my location except these people”: Maybe most followers are ok, except a few you name.
“Show only my city to”: A very useful variation on the above would be to let some people only receive the city you are in rather than the exact location. It might send a randomized location like Myallo HotList does, send a fixed location at the center of the city, or some similar scheme.
For example, I might like to set things up where the general public sees no location information, my followers could see only the city, and a few specifically named members can see my exact location. These sort of features are the next set of improvements I’d like to see for Twitter geolocation.
How Geolocation Can Help People
Where are my friends? What’s up with Joe right now? Who’s at the Club? Where is the rally? These are the types of questions that can be answered when people twitter with their location to friends. Myallo HotList is a good example of an app that answers these sort of questions. In that app, you tell it the twitter names of your friends and it periodically checks with Twitter to tell you where your friends are in relation to you and places of interest. It also shows how ‘hot’ (interesting) they are – if friends are nearby, that is interesting; if they are gathering at the Mall, they and the Mall are more interesting, and so on. Myallo HotList isn’t really a Twitter based app – you can’t send a tweet with it, yet it uses Twitter to get the latest about where your friends are and what they are saying.
How Geolocation Can Help Business
Suppose you are a coffee house. Each morning, you might send a tweet about today’s special, or who is performing on stage that night. Myallo HotList, and other apps coming down the line, look to ‘discover’ tweeters that are nearby. As you come near the area, that coffee house tweet will appear on the hot list. If you told my app you like “coffee” and ‘jazz”, and that tweet says “Great coffee, great jazz at CoffeeBean’s tonight!” then that tweet will shoot up to the top of the list. The list will show the tweet, the picture from the Twitter profile, the location, and how far it is from you right now. At a touch, you can go to the Twitter profile page, make a call, see it on a map, or get driving or walking directions.
For the coffee house, this is great advertising. It is absolutely free, and you didn’t have to advertise or find the person somehow and say “Please follow us on Twitter!”. The tweet popped up on the list simply due to the person being nearby, and it got a priority for that person because they said “jazz” and “coffee” were interesting.
For the person using such an app, it’s not really spam, because the app was set up to discover nearby tweeters, and set to look for tweets mentioning coffee or jazz. It filtered Twitter and found just what I was asking for.
Geolocation: Creepy or Useful?
Done right, geolocation can be a win for everyone involved. I can tell my location to those who I want to tell – my friends or parents or kids or club members or followers. And I can see the locations of people or places who want to tell me.
But it can be creepy if you forget you are sending your location, or can’t control who sees it or with what specificity. Maybe that TV star got plagued with paparazzi or worse.
It’s all about awareness and selectivity. I think it can be done right, and be a plus for all.
i’m an independent software developer not affiliated with Twitter. This article reflects my understanding of Twitter and some of its upcoming features. For more info on Myallo Hotlist, go to myallo.com/hotlist or visit the app in the iTunes App Store.