How Location-Based Services Can Enliven Cities [My Ideal City]

How Location-Based Services Can Enliven Cities [My Ideal City]

PSFK talks to Brett Martin about how mobile technology platforms are using location to connect people in new and interesting ways.

  • 19 may 2013

As part of our MyIdealCity series looking at the future of cities, PSFK reached out to experts to get their take on key trends we’ve identified that are currently affecting urban environments. Brett is the Co-Founder and CEO of Sonar, a mobile app that tells you when your friends and friends’ friends are nearby, revealing the hidden connections you might have otherwise missed. He spoke with about how mobile technology platforms are leveraging location as a key metric for helping citizens seamlessly access a host of services to help them better navigate their urban environments.

What impact do you see location-based applications having on social and economic vitality of cities generally?

Now that everyone carries a computer in their pocket, the offline world will become increasingly like the online one: measurable, customizable, personalized, and interactive.

I think it’s helpful to understand the underlying tectonic forces that drive these services. It’s simple really: mobile and the cloud. Mobile refers to the sensors in our pockets that continuously collect data from and share data with our environment, often in real time. The cloud is where all of the sensors report to, a brain that is geting smarter and smarter as it synthesizes all of the data ever created and captured. We spent the past 10 years uploading who we are, what we like, where we work, and who are friends are to the cloud, now we are downloading that data to our phones, and using it to personalize our view of the world around us. Dennis from Foursquare is spot on when he talks about building a Maurauder’s map.

Location is only part of the story though. What we really seek is context. Technologies like Sonar derive context by analyzing as many vectors as possible – location, place, mode of locomotion, friends nearby, previously stated intent, weather, time of day, etc. – to infer what you want, right here, right now.

Google knows how valuable intent is, and is unsurprisingly investing heavily in contextual computing. They are building new inputs (Glass wants real-time video/audio of the world) and outputs (Field Trip pushes places that it thinks you will find interesting). Hardware companies like Intel and Qualcom realize that the devices of the future will be cognizant of their surroundings, and are investing heavily in companies like Newaer, which helps your device discover and connect with nearby devices, and Gimbal, which enables app developers to build apps that are responsive to their physical environment. Today’s technologies are nascent but maturing quickly.

How are proximity based-services helping citizens more efficiently navigate their urban environments? Can you help us think of any social, economic or environmental implications?

Everything will occur at 10x the present speed. We often talk about productivity in the abstract – GDP growth, for instance – but with mobile tech it’s in plain sight. The concept of messaging ten friends, looking up directions, and making a reservation for dinner, while walking between meetings, is inconceivable to most of our parents. Historically, digital technologies have disconnected us from our immediate environment (I probably bumped into three people on the way to that meeting) but as HCIs become more natural and integrated (no, Glass isn’t there yet), we will recover some bandwidth to attend the here and now. But in the future, the here and now will be a seamless blend of physical and digital data. We are already simultaneously present in both the physical and digital worlds, we just aren’t fully conscious of it yet.

How are various match-matching applications positively affecting the development of cities on a larger scale? 

I’ve often said that Sonar brings the efficiency of online networking to offline networking by enabling our users to consider the online reputations, interests, and friends of the people in the room when deciding with whom they should strike up a physical conversation. This geo-social infrastructure has enabled hyper-local marketplaces for learning (Skillshare), lodging (AirBnB), or tasks (Zaarly).

What three things would you include in your ‘Ideal’ City?

Good gelato
Pretty girls
A right hand point break

I just want them to be easier to discover and connect with. ;)

Thanks Brett!


Q. “What local services do you want to connect to on your phone?”

Submit your answer now at the MyIdealCity site – or tweet your suggestion using #MyIdealCity and #SensibleCity


Over the next 6 months, PSFK and a team of experts imagining the future of a city will be asking you what you envision as ‘My Ideal City’. Tweet us your ideas using the hashtag of the week and view all the submissions at the MyIdealCity site.


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