MIT Technology Review

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Mobile Summit 2013: More Apps May Soon Want to Know Where You Are

Factual, a company that provides location data on places, thinks more apps could make use of its information.

Many smartphone apps have terms and conditions that allow them to collect location data from users—whether or not those apps actually use that information to improve their service. That data could soon be used in some surprising ways, by music or photo apps, for example.

Factual, a company that processes and sells data tied to the locations of 65 million businesses and other places worldwide (see "50 Disruptive Businesses, 2013"), is cooking up ways for a broader range of mobile device apps to make use of knowledge about where a person is located at any given time.

Factual CEO Gil Elbaz, who spoke this week at the MIT Technology Review Mobile Summit in San Francisco, says the company is working on a "personalization API" that it plans to launch in the coming months. It would make it easier for app developers that don't typically make use of a person's location—say a music service like Pandora or Spotify—to tap into a person's situation in the moment. Using the API, for example, a music service might know if a person is in a library or in a stadium and automatically change the volume accordingly.

Such location information could clearly be useful in personalizing advertisements. You could imagine a photo app that recognizes when a person is standing at a particular tourist site. Google's Motorola division is reportedly working on a phone that can guess when a person wants to take a photo.

Factual's plan comes as major mobile technology companies look to assist app developers in using mobile sensor data to gauge a person's current surroundings and intent.

Google, for example, recently launched a set of services that will help outside software developers track their users' location and movements, at the same time reducing the battery power required to do this tracking (see "Google Wants to Help Apps Track You"). Similarly, the chipmaker Qualcomm is developing on a platform called Gimbal that taps a phone's sensors to provide apps with "contextual awareness" and announced in April that it had formed a business partnership with Factual.

Elbaz acknowledges that clearly not everyone wants to share all of their data in return for apps that can guess what they want. Elbaz believes location information can be extremely useful, but should only be used with a person's permission. And he says it's rarely easy to read or understand a privacy policy on the Web, let alone on the small smartphone screen. "Consumers need to cry out for simple tools," Elbaz says.