Esri’s Amber Case: Why ‘Less Is More’ With Local Data

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The new Google Maps personalized interface.Behind the blue dot in the map app that tells you where you are, there’s a tangled maze of algorithms and sensors that create and analyze the location data that puts you in context on that device. Those technologies are rapidly improving, creating unique opportunities for developers and marketers alike to create new ways of engaging with consumers as they move throughout the real-world.

As far as technologists are concerned, few in the industry are more familiar with the nuts and bolts of how location data is made than Amber Case. The self-proclaimed “cyborg anthropologist sold her startup Geoloqi, which built positioning algorithms for developers, to Esri last year, and today she heads up the 45-year-old mapping firm’s R&D center in Portland, Ore. There, Case and her team work with developers to create more accurate and efficient ways of finding where we are in the world, and helping everyone — from brands and marketers to local governments — connect the right people with the right information at the right time.

In the lead up to Street Fight’s Local Data Summit in Denver on February 25th, we’re taking a deep dive into the world of local information, speaking with some of the sharpest minds in the industry about using the data to make businesses more efficient, and to make experiences richer for consumer. Street Fight recently caught up with Case to discuss what we might expect from location data in the years to come.

Say I’m a brand marketer interested in putting local data to use for the first time. From a technology perspective, what do I need to know to make sure I don’t bite off more than I can chew.
The big thing is that, with location data, less is more. If someone doesn’t get a [marketing] message for two days, that’s great. That one message, delivered in the right context, can mean miles more than ten poorly executed messages.

Mobile is a whole new way of developing. You have limited space, limited memory, and limited interaction time. You can’t make location the whole point of the app. It’s hard for people to get, because often the default is that marketers just send someone an ad all the time as they walk around town. You just can’t do that. You have to have a brand message that means something to someone.

From a technical standpoint, one thing that we’re always talking about is that developing for mobile is not the same as the web — location is filled with edge cases. Someone positioned between two cell towers can send a phone, and the GPS signal, into an infinite loop. Or a user can go underground or a phone can run out of battery, or the wifi is turned off. There’s all of these different variables that simply do not exist online Even worse, there’s different GPS chips used in a field of devices. That’s a big difference from developing for the web. You can’t just have a list of variables that you can test for. You need to go out in the field and make sure it works.

Esri’s Amber Case

If you look at what the two biggest mobile operating systems — iOS and Android — released last year, what new feature or technology will make the biggest impact for the industry.
Like many folks, I’m really excited about iBeacon. The technology, which was created by a small startup that [Geoloqi] actually almost partnered with before Apple bought them, provides the ability to take the exact same experience in the outside world with respect to positioning, and bring it inside.

The most important thing here is that there are more ways to interact with location. iBeacon will help push forward development, so that we can have a seamless transition from the outdoor to indoor experience. Again,the rule of thumb will be: less is more. Do not send too many messages. But you’ll get a lot more information, when to send those messages — a lot more analytics data. Once you get that location data, you have to put it to work. You have to improve the experience, not interrupt it.

We’ve already seen a lot of excitement from the retail and marketing community around beacon technology, with a handful of big retailers already testing systems. How complete is the tech?
Some of the building blocks are finished; others are not. The big challenge is with the interface. How do you design a interface that accounts for the implicit privacy issues? How do you design the experience so that it’s not just a development tool but an actual solution?

Generally, one of the biggest issues around mobile is that [brands] typically do not have a ton of mobile developers inside of employed internally. We’ll see the rise in third-party mobile shops aimed at working with these large brands to create solutions that can be white labeled, and reapplied. It takes a long time to go market if each time that you add location to an app, it’s a one-off project.

The industry is still waiting on that one killer implementation for location on mobile. Why do you think it’s taken so long.
There’s a lot of these highly technical companies that say: “We’re going to make a module that does everything you need and more.” That confuses developers, it confuses the people you sell to, and it confuses brands. Simpler is better.

When done well, [adding location to an application] is beautiful. But often people want to do too much, and it ends up falling apart. Add one thing, put it on the pilot program, and see how it works. Then go from there.

Looking forward to the next few years, what parts of the local data industry excite you most?
There’s all of the public data out there about cities that we don’t see. I want to see that invisible layer in reality being brought to life and delivered to people’s hands. That opens a lot of possibilities. It’s not, “what are you doing now,” like on Twitter, but “what’s happening here?” I imagine a world in which people can easily subscribe to various layers of content about what’s around you.

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.

Related content: Geoloqi’s Amber Case Wants to Simplify LBS App-making (Street Fight, March 2012)

Find out more about how big data can be used in local context at Street Fight’s Local Data Summit, taking place on February 25th, in Denver. Learn from and network with some of the top local data experts in the country. Tickets just $399 until January 23rd. Buy now!