Local Services For Local People

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Some researchers from Northeastern University have been tracking the whereabouts of some 100,000 mobile users and found some interesting results. Many stories about the research have focused on the privacy implications, but we’ll ignore them for the time being, and focus instead on the main finding: that most people in the study (from what’s identified only as an industrialized nation somewhere in Europe) don’t move around much, and when they do, they tend to go to the same places.

The study found that nearly 75 percent of people stayed within a 20-mile circle for half the year, with the vast majority keeping to an even smaller one most of the time. Then, when they do travel — near or far — they tend to go to the same places again and again. There are potential implications for this data well beyond our industry, but what it’s mean for mobile services?

Russell’s made this basic point before, that most of us tend to spend most of our time in places we know best, and this study underlines that. So does this mean local search is a little misguided, that maybe we don’t need help finding places near us as search vendors would have us believe? I’ve always been a little bit skeptical of the local search market, mainly for this reason. That said, I think there’s still a lot of room in the market for services and applications that help us interact with our local area better. Think things like Socialight, Loopt, Buzzd, or Whrrl.

Conversely, when we do wander out of our usual haunts is when we most need the sort of help that local search or other LBS can provide. So what can be done to better recognize, or even predict, when users need some assistance or guidance? And how should the user experience change for LBS or local search when your users aren’t familiar with the area?

Interesting stuff to consider, I think. This is a space that hasn’t yet been cracked, and it’s still early days. But this sort of research can provide some particularly useful guidance to LBS developers.

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