I love Twitter, I really do. I wish I had more followers (hint, please follow me @t_j_thompson), but the problem with Twitter is that it (generally) isn’t real-time. I conducted an experiment last time I traveled – I used Twitter to try and get answers to burning questions. I tweeted DFW airport about parking, DFW airport about security lines, American Airlines about my flight, etc. I kept it up the entire trip. Out of everyone I tweeted, only American Airlines responded quickly – but even then it wasn’t fast enough. I did get a response from the Las Vegas airpot about the length of security lines about 3 hours after I cleared them.
I don’t blame the companies. We support a client with social media and it is incredibly challenging to provide real-time answers. We could always hire a lot more people to cut down on response time, but then we’re giving up the cost-effectiveness of social media vs. a call center, for example. The question, really, is what good is real-time social media if it doesn’t give me the answer “I” want in real-time?
The answer may be right around the corner, so to speak. Hal Hodson, writes in New Scientist that “when social networks and location apps collide, your eyes and ears are suddenly everywhere.”
HAS the headliner come on-stage at Madison Square Garden yet? Any free washing machines at the laundrette around the corner? It would be impractical to rig up electronic sensors to answer such questions about every place on the planet, but the people in those places already know the answers, if only you could ask them.
An application called MoboQ does exactly this by linking social networks with location data to let users ask time-sensitive questions about specific locations, and get them answered by complete strangers on the spot. This is crowd-sensing: a way of tapping into networks of distributed human beings.
But there’s a catch. This hip social-media app is not the offspring of Silicon Valley, but the product of a Shanghai technology incubator called Diggerlab. It is only available in China with Sina Weibo, a Twitter-equivalent which boasts 400 million members. MoboQ lets its users ask questions about specific places in the physical world and then finds up to 15 Sina Weibo users best positioned to answer, based on their recent activity on Weibo and Jiepang, China’s equivalent of location-based service Foursquare. You need to be signed up to MoboQ to ask a question, but anyone on Weibo can answer it.
Western firms are racing to come up with similar products. In an experimentrun on Twitter last year, Jeff Nichols and colleagues at IBM’s Almaden lab in San Jose, California, polled people on Twitter whose Foursquare accounts identified them as being at airports across the US. The team sent unsolicited tweets to ask how long it took them to clear airport security. The team mapped the data they gathered from the project, giving them a detailed overview of how quickly people were being cleared.
As well as IBM’s business approach, the combination of two services from Facebook, Nearby and Graph Search, also holds promise. Nearby is Facebook’s mobile version of Gowalla, a location-based service that it bought in December 2011. Applying Facebook’s recently announced Graph Search – which lets users filter information about their friends and interests using keywords – to Nearby’s location data could allow you to search your network to find people in certain places and ask them questions.
MoboQ’s co-founder, Yefeng Liu, says the service has about 100,000 users so far, after being launched early in 2012. Liu will outline the vision for MoboQ in a paper due to be presented at the International World Wide Web Conference in Rio de Janeiro in May. He foresees the system being used by tourists to get real-time information about attractions and restaurants, to ask questions about ongoing events like football games or concerts, or to ask after the welfare of people in a specific place during a disaster.
Recent questions asked using MoboQ include: “Is there cheap parking near Guolv Mansion, Shanghai?”; “I heard there was a big fire and blackout in Lijiang. What’s going on now?”; “How many people are there in the Baoli International Cinema in Beijing right now?”. Twitter can sometimes be used to ask similar questions, but potential respondents will only see questions if they happen to be monitoring Twitter for the right keywords.
Jeon-Hyung Kang at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, says services that mix social networks and location data have huge potential. “Once people are aware of them, I think they will become similar to Twitter,” he says.
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