Sunday, November 04, 2012

On Location in Baltimore

I went to Baltimore to present my findings on location-based services at the conference for the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T). I was only supposed to be there for a couple days but then Hurricane Sandy blew in and stranded me there for a few days. So the dull academic conference had more excitement than usual - and I got to explore more of Baltimore.

Before going to Baltimore I bought a new mobile device, a Galaxy Nexus, so that I could connect to WiFi as my old BlackBerry didn't allow this. I also thought I would just be getting a better device. So far my experience with the Nexus has been very disappointing, which I'll blog about later.

I've travelled to the United States before and used my mobile device, but the roaming fees were killer. So this trip was the first time I was able to use my device while exploring a new place.

Before going to Baltimore, I was looking for travel guides apps or content to access on my mobile. I couldn't find a Baltimore app - which I was surprised wasn't readily available. The only thing I could find on Baltimore for my mobile was an e-book by Lonely Planet. But at $10 it was too expensive for me.

Baltimore is making good use of Foursquare however (see Visit Baltimore for more on this). I was able to connect to visitor centre beforehand and receive recommendations on places to visit, which I saved in a list.

My new device did allow me to easily check-in on Foursquare at spots with Wi-Fi and to upload pictures. This functionality forms a travel log, which I really enjoyed. It also made it easy to share what I was up to with my wife at home (I'm not sure she liked knowing the fun places I was at while she was working and watching our kid at home) and with friends.

These check-ins allowed me to earn the quirky crab "Charm City" badge. These badges, as I have noted before, are surprisingly fun. I also got a Halloween badge on the trip for being out on Halloween night - instead of with my family as usual - due to Hurricane Sandy.

Facebook also has similar check-in functionality, which now makes Foursquare less necessary. But at this point, I don't want to share every check-in with my Facebook network, so I still find it useful to have a separate app.

Plus Foursquare, in theory, offers "tips" on places, but these user-generated suffer from the inevitable problems of spam, trolls, and overall noise. Most of the time that I wanted to access these tips in Baltimore they were populated by such useless content, that it rendered this feature pointless. If I knew of an app that had place info on Baltimore - both official and user-generated - I would have gladly used it as Foursquare is really problematic in this regard.

Another problem, is that as I relied on Wi-Fi, I could only check-in at major places that had a free Wi-Fi, so I wasn't able to get the tips when and where I often need them (e.g. deciding a restaurant) and I couldn't check in at all the fun, new places I wanted to.

My explorations of Baltimore, however, came to a halt when Hurricane Sandy came to town. Under such circumstances, I (and everyone else at the conference) wanted regular, real-time access to hyperlocal news and weather. I couldn't find a source for this during my short time in Baltimore (yes, I could have used Twitter but I find it too much of a firehose in these instances). I could find weather forecasts for the entire city, but not a minute-by-minute update on my particular part of the city. This was info I needed to know to determine if it was safe to venture out to get to the conference venue or back to my hotel (the conference went on during the storm). It was easier to just turn on a tv to a local station or ask somebody to get the best information.

The conference itself was a great opportunity to meet other people researching some interesting things. But unfortunately the sessions, I found, were rather uninspired. There was almost no sessions that discussed mobile or geographic information - so ASIS&T might not be the best place for this topic. Still, several people were interested in my research on mobiles, location-based services, and sense of place. So maybe I'll attend the next ASIS&T conference in Montreal - at least I could use my mobile device freely around the city and not have to worry about access points or roaming charges that otherwise greatly limit the technology's potential.

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