I was looking for maps of local meeting places (aka Starbucks) one day recently, and found this great little tool called FindbyClick. It looked like something I could really use, and I was excited to see it had mobile download availability. Just not for my Blackberry. Darn.
This prompted a quick e-mail to the company, which resulted in a delightful conversation with Kevin MacDonald, head of the location-based product group at developer Pentura.
FindbyClick was a media darling for a brief period when it was first introduced, but is not the main line of business for this IT development company. Nevertheless, it has a place in the hearts of the team, and is still in line for some development.
"My dream is to tap into the community, to help take content that would be of interest to others, and to use this content to create a social network on a map," Mr. MacDonald says.
He observed that a challenge for all mapping services, whether Google Maps, MapQuest or TomTom, is that "they have a lot of stale data." He had hoped to build enough of a community that people would go in and correct incorrect data. This did indeed happen in some instances. "We had one guy who had a Wal-Mart obsession," who did considerable work tagging and moving points around to their correct locations. Another individual provided many of the locations and tags for Starbucks in Hong Kong.
Mr. MacDonald believes that the launch of FindbyClick was "a little ahead of the curve." IPhone had not yet been released, and mobile device capability was constrained. At the time this service was built, only Nokia had the capacity to put such an application on their phones.
Subsequently the firm has worked with a number of major organizations on location-based applications, including Google.
Maps as information sources
You can learn a lot from mapping. For example, Mr. MacDonald notes that Manhatten is covered with Starbucks, but New Jersey has almost none. We speculated that perhaps New Jerseyites were more of a Dunkin Donuts crowd. Or perhaps they get their Starbucks at work, not in their home neighborhood. You can tell alot about the people in an area by the stores and services in the area.
The future of mapping is definitely bright
Mr. MacDonald agreed with me that push marketing to your mobile device is not likely to be appealing to many people -- the "turn around now for a great deal" kinds of applications that were forecast a decade ago.
Instead, what he sees is the potential for predictive functionality based on an individual's own tags. So my phone might tell me about things that are similar to what I have already expressed interest in. If I have tagged a lot of delicatessens on my maps, my phone might find additional delis for me from the lists of things others have tagged. This feels something like Del.icio.us functionality brought to a map, and that would be excellent.
Another limitation has been the lexicon of descriptions available to tag a given location, which Mr. MacDonald likens to working with a limited vocabulary. In the future we will have more free-form searching, instead of being limited to a specific set of tags.
FindbyClick will launch a new version in 2009, "with more data, more content, and content more personalized to you."
Experience design implications
So many of the things we want are local. And the web has not been very good at local search. When we are looking for a hair salon, we want one that's convenient. Even more for a drycleaner. Same thing for a daycare, a dentist, or a framing shop. Sometimes it's urgently local, as is the case with a gas station or a bank machine.
With local search and mapping getting better, and with smart mobile devices ready to help, we will all be able to get out from behind our desks more and find the places we need. If your company has any kind of physical presence, you will want to be considering how you will take your place in these interactive maps.
Pentura Solutions Inc.-- an IT consulting firm that developed FindbyClick
FindbyClick the blog -- Kevin MacDonald's blog