Location, location, location

Have just been to one of our regular Technology Coffee Mornings, where people take turns to explain/demo some technology. I did one myself a while ago about RSS. Today’s was by Patrick McAndrew, and his topic was Geocaching.

He made it look easier than I thought – although he was at pains to explain that the technology is all still very flaky, doesn’t work a lot of the time, and needs a lot of technologist glue to get it working well. He’d even written his own Google Maps mash-up to help out with getting data from a PC to his GPS-equipped HP PDA. His mash-up makes it easy to capture an image from Google Maps with two positions marked, and export the locations of those positions in a format the PDA software understood. Transfer those two to the PDA, match the marks on the image with the locations, and bingo – the image is synchronised with the GPS data and he can get a live position on a real map. (Later: He’s already blogged in more detail about how it works.)

He also mentioned that more and more phones have a GPS chip on them, even if they don’t have any software to make use of it soon.

It’s not a new observation, but I was very struck that location-based stuff is going to be very, very big in the next five years. If you have a GPS chip on your phone, you can know where you are. Connecting that up to a central database, you can know what interesting things are nearby – for whatever your current value of “interesting” is. And if your mates also have a GPS chip on their phone, you can know where your mates are. I predict that the social networking possibilities that affords will take off massively. (Unless the networks kill it with silly walled-garden approaches, or absurdly expensive offerings, which they might. But that should only delay it a few years until the chips become even cheaper and widely available as a standalone device.)

There are services that sort-of do this already, but you have to all be signed up to the same service – none yet have anything like critical mass – and uploading where you are now isn’t as automatic as it’d need to be. Twitter’s success at SXSW was – I reckon – an example of this. (Of course, it didn’t have the precise GPS data, but it worked fine as a physical social networking tool there because it was a restricted domain so you could easily and unambiguously specify where you were within a tiny bit of human-generated text.)

But where’s the learning?!

Harder to answer. On MOBIlearn – a large EU-funded mobile learning project I worked on a short while ago – we found “lazy planning” of learning activities one of the things you could do with the technology that you couldn’t do otherwise. (Traditionally, you schedule a learning activity in advance and let everyone know the time and place it’s happening; with lazy planning, you text/phone them at some arbitrary time and get them together that way. It’s just a learning version of what people do these days when going out – instead of agreeing “7.30 in the Red Lion” in advance, at around 7.30 you text each other saying “I’m in Red Lion where RU?”.) This sort of location-based stuff would sit very well with that.

It might also link up with the new university model/’Open Universities’/skunkworks idea that Martin Weller’s been working on. He’s blogged about it being a very long-tail operation: a way of getting the small number of people with very niche learning interests together. I think the location-based stuff could also help with more popular learning interests: you’d be able to get the small number of people with the popular learning interest who happen to be nearby together.

Thinking about it, that’s pretty much what we do as the OU with our tutorial system. For a small-population course, we might have a handful of tutorial groups spread all over the place. (E.g. our online MA, where a tutor group might have students in Thurso, Margate, Lille, Abu Dhabi and Wellington.) For a large-population course, we can arrage many more tutorial groups so that for most students there’s one in their part of the city or the nearest market town.

But that’s very slow turnover stuff: the groups form for the whole course, which is typically 9 months. I’d imagine the location-based social networking stuff would be more about groups forming for an hour or two.

I’m now starting to think about how Reed’s Law of group-forming networks reckons that the value of a group-forming network grows more like O(2^N) than the O(N^2) that Metcalfe’s Law says a telecoms network does, and how enhancing the group-forming aspect of a given network – say of OU students – will therefore dramatically enhance its value … but this post is already too long and I need to head off to the next thing.

(And I’ve not put in the links here, sorry – but it’s a real content post!)

Hello world!

First post! And the big question for any new blog: is it a one-post wonder, a month-long marvel, or an ongoing project? Find out here first!

There are all sorts of tricky issues with a work-related blog. How much detail to make public? Will the employer approve? All of which are excuses I’ve used not to get started. But this is a start.