Location-aware wikis – the next big wiki thing?

There are some important changes coming in the next five years around how people will use wikis, specifically in conjunction with mobile devices. I’d like to publicly outline my thoughts on the background, the premise, and the potential.


First some background. Around 4 or 5 years ago, most laptops started including local wireless and better power-saving as standard (i.e. greater portability of computing power). About 2 years ago, the number of laptops sold exceeded the number of desktop and server systems sold, and that trend has only continued since (i.e. greater ubiquity of portable computing power).

About 12 years ago, the first mobile phone I owned was a second-hand classic Motorola the size and weight of a small brick (it was too heavy to carry often, so mostly I left it in my car – it was similar to this, but a bit smaller – it was mobile, but not wearable, and the battery life was rubbish, maybe a few hours, and it could only do phone calls). About 9 years ago my phone was basic Nokia – it was much lighter, with battery life of a bit over 1 day, but it was still a bit heavy so it had a belt clip, and it could make calls and send SMS (i.e. very basic data). My current Nokia phone is about 4 years old, it’s cheap, it’s lightweight (85 grams), it has battery life of about a week, and it does WAP, but no Wi-Fi. So the trend lines are clear in retrospect for both laptops and mobiles, and looking ahead, they are converging: Greater portability; Greater computing power; Greater battery life; Greater access to mobile data; And mobile phones are basically becoming wearable mini-computers that you carry around in a pocket with you.

The premise

So far, this hasn’t impacted wikis too much, but I think we’re about to reach a tipping point where these trends do have a bigger impact on wikis – I would like outline why, and what’s required for it to happen. In particular, lately a number of friends and family have independently upgraded to mobile phones with inbuilt GPS plus mobile Internet functionality. I think GPS + mobile Internet + wikis could be a game changer, and it could be a seriously kick-arse combination. But you need all 3 components for it to work.

Think about it – a wiki that has local information about your area, the best restaurants, the best sights and entertainment, all with genuine user-comments and guides and feedback and ratings. Everything in that wiki is geotagged – that’s part of the core purpose of the wiki. You “carry” the wiki with you in your pocket, on your phone, through your mobile Internet. And as you move around, the GPS shows you where you are, and what’s near to you that has got articles and that was good. Wander wherever you like, knowing that you’ll always have the best low-down on what’s good and what’s not, no matter where you are. Be a local anywhere.

Now the mobile phone manufacturers have already started to include some limited GPS software with “points of interest” on their phones – e.g. the Nokia Navigator 6110 will show you nearby ATMs, petrol stations, public bathrooms, etc. That’s great for facts for commodity destinations (e.g. most ATMs or Petrol stations are completely interchangeable). But what about restaurants – which ones are worth eating at, and are in your budget? Sights – which ones are actually worth seeing, according to the people that have been there? The currently GPS software lacks depth in this regard, but worse it lacks participation. This makes it broken.

There are audio tour guides starting to show up for cities – e.g. in Hong Kong you can purchase a SIM card which would then give you free over-the-phone access to a canned tour guide you can listen to as you wandered in a certain area of the city. But it’s basically scripted for you, and you don’t get to “edit” it to add your picks for those who come after you. Canned audio guides lack interactivity and participation.

There are some city-specific wikis (e.g. DavisWiki, ArborWiki), which have good depth about an area. But mostly they lack geotagging, and there’s bound to be some server-side software updates needed to make location-aware wikis work well on mobile phones. So currently the wikis we have about a specific location aren’t particularly usable from a mobile phone. They’re about a place, but they are not location-aware or portable. As a result, city-specific wikis have been a niche wiki application, but in a few years the number of wikis in this area will explode. I know that a number of entrepreneurs are interested in local wikis or the data stores behind them, and it’s an area that has a huge and largely untapped potential, but which to date has mostly been done well by transitory college students.

There are some sites (e.g. for New York) where you can get functionality something like what I’m describing (by scribbling notes on a map), but I suspect it’s not as deep or as broad or as structured as a wiki can be.

No, what you need is all 3 things together: The location-awareness of GPS, the depth and timeliness of being able to access a great big store of current information via the Internet, and the participation of wikis. But it will happen. I’m calling it – mark my words. And whoever does it first and does it best will probably make a bloody fortune.

This plus this on this equals good

The problems

What’s holding it back currently is that advanced phones are expensive (e.g. about AU $850 for a Nokia N95, but there is at least one open-source phone which will have GPS called the OpenMoko in development), not all phones have GPS (e.g. the lauded iPhone lacks GPS – what were Apple thinking? – wouldn’t buy one of these until it has GPS if I were you), and mobile Internet is expensive and often usage-metered rather than flat rate. But those things will get fixed in time. The technology exists and works – it just needs to become widely distributed. Mobile Internet will become ubiquitous in phones, even the cheap ones. GPS will become ubiquitous in phones, even the cheap ones. And mobile Internet will get cheaper as demand for it increases and competition increases, or it will be overtaken by citywide mesh wireless networks. These things will happen, and the opportunity is very real. So it’s not an “if” but a “when”. I’m thinking maybe 5 years before it’s common to see people in the street doing this. But if you want to be there and be ready for that time in 5 years, you probably need to start building it now. But the building it will probably be expensive, simply because the first one of anything non-trivial in software usually is expensive.

What will it look like? How will it work?

The first thing to realise is that if you’re walking around, you don’t normally want a lot of text. A 40-kilobyte Wikipedia article is a tad unwieldy to read on a 2.6″ screen whilst walking around in the full sunlight. What you want instead is a summary of information, possibly spoken by software instead of written text. A little bit of the right information at the right time: “Turn left here. Walk 50 metres. It’s nearly lunchtime – Excellent Portuguese Chicken on your right for $10”. Keep it simple, keep it short.

Now if people want more information at that point, then give it to them. “Hmm… Portuguese food… yum, sounds tasty… let’s quickly scan the menu and ratings… **click** **scroll** … okay, sold!”

Now it’s not a wiki unless you can then add your thoughts. So after you meal, you notice that the hours are slightly out of date, and correct them. Maybe you upload a photo of the shop or your dish (before you ate it!). And you add a rating (4 out of 5) and a quick note: “the chicken is succulent and tasty. Be sure to ask for garlic sauce on your chips – it tastes great!”

Another thing you could do is follow a planned route if you’re new to an area, for a “best of” tour. This is kind of like the Hong Kong idea, but because it’s a wiki it could evolve and be updated in a decentralised fashion. Similarly planning your own routes for later, and storing them on the wiki, would be good. And after you had done the route, if the wiki asked you whether you had any corrections or updates that you wanted to make, then that would be good.

There will also probably have to be a more traditional detailed way to view the wiki, like the standard Wikipedia Monobook skin. This would allow both mobile and desktop users to update and edit the site, whilst still allowing mobile users to have a more concise view of the information.

An important thing to note is that most of the content has to be created by locals. Someone on the other side of the planet can add skeleton entries for restaurant or parks or museums such as names and addresses, but the valuable content, the user-generated stuff, has to come from ordinary users, on the ground, who know the place in question, have tried it, and have had some sort of reaction. So a low barrier to entry (much lower than the Wikipedia) is required to allow sufficient people to contribute feedback to allow it to work.

How to make it happen faster

The single best way to help make this happen faster is to build citywide free mesh wireless networks in your neighbourhood. The mobile Internet is the biggest stumbling block, and big telecoms are hugely resistant to change or dropping their prices unless forced to (basically, they’re pricks). GPS in phones is coming, and I see no sign that companies like Nokia are holding back; and wiki people generally don’t hold back, so that doesn’t worry me either. The wireless networking does a bit though. The answer may be to build a grassroots network, using a self-healing easy-deployment wireless mesh, such as Meraki is doing in San Francisco. (By the way, if anyone wants to start making one of these mesh networks in Sydney, let me know, I’d happily be involved in that).

Anyway, that’s it from me. Just remember: GPS phone + wireless Internet + local wikis = perfect storm. Ciao!

Wikimania 2007 wrap-up

Yes yes, I know this already happened months ago … I’m just sometimes very very slooow to get around to putting things on my blog.

Wikimania 2007 wrap-up: constructive criticism, random comments, and a few photos.

Firstly, if you get a chance to go to Wikimania, then you really should go – you’ll have a really great time. I have only been to this one, but the Taipei organisers were amazing – they were very friendly, amazingly helpful, and the facilities with the lecture rooms being so close to the accommodation and so close to the dining areas and all with an ATM and convenience store nearby, was just superb, and all the touches (e.g. the power cables everywhere) were just great, and the other attendees were lots of fun.

Eric recently wrote a good summary of Wikimania, and towards the end invited some constructive criticism. Well, here are my thoughts on a few things that would have made an amazingly good conference even better, although most of this overlaps with wishlist comments that other people have made:

  • Double-sided name badges, so that you can always read someone’s name. I lost count of the number of times I flipped over someone’s name badge, or they flipped over mine.
  • More wireless microphones so that panels and getting audience input is easier.
  • Maybe try some Meraki mesh routers for wireless networking, as per Gerard M’s suggestion.
  • Include a notepad and pen in the conference bag so that people can take old-school notes.
  • A survey form, to gather feedback at the end of the conference. Example questions: Which talks did people like the most? What things worked well at the conference? What things didn’t work so well? What or who would you like to see at Wikimania?
  • Improve the online video experience for people who can’t be there. (Walter raised this point previously):
    • Background: No matter where you hold Wikimania, it’s a given that large numbers of people will not be able to attend. Now, I must point out that other volunteer-run conferences (like linux.conf.au) have the exact same problem with videos – their volunteers record videos with the best of intentions of putting of them online, neatly labeled by talk, in an open format. During the conference there’s no time to do this though, because there are fires that have to put out, talks to attend, people to meet, parties to go to – so post-processing and uploading the videos gets pushed back to “later”. Then the conference ends, the attendees go home, and the volunteers who have worked their-asses-off start to think about reconnecting with their friends / family / work, with the best of intentions of doing it some time later. But after a few weeks, it hasn’t happened, and it probably never will. It doesn’t really work, and the only time I’ve seen it done really well was at http://mirror.linux.org.au/linux.conf.au/2007/video/ , but that required an amazing and probably unreasonable amount of work from the organizers, and even then not all of the videos were labeled with obvious names.
    • So my suggestion is this: Take some of the money that would normally go towards getting people to the conference (e.g. $1000 or $2000 would probably fly 2 or 3 people to the conference), and instead put that towards paying A/V non-wikipedians to do all the post-processing and labeling and uploading of videos, as soon as possible after the videos are recorded, and give them part of the money only after it’s done. That way, sure, you get slightly fewer people attending which sucks a bit, but suddenly many more people can participate, even if they cannot physically be there, which more than makes up for it.

And now some random comments:

  • The “Truth in Numbers” documentary from Nic Hill will finish filming short after the end of Wikimania 2007. He showed a preview at the party (held at the end of the second day). The audience had been chatting for a while, and had quite a few beers, and so was getting a bit vocal. So what was interesting is that when the video was show, people would cheer or boo, depending on who or what was being shown. They booed at the bit about Chinese Internet censorship – as did I. They also booed at Larry Sanger when there was a clip with a quote from him. Now, I have never met the guy, but I do think he’s getting a bit of a raw deal. What he was saying was intelligent, his point was valid, and I for one am glad that Citizendium exists. Currently I don’t use it, but the fact it exists at all as a competitor is a good thing. So please, cut the guy some slack.
  • Location of the next or future Wikimanias. (Note: Alexandria was picked for 2008 recently, so some of this stuff is now out of date!) Of course there’s a bidding process for selecting this, but people love to speculate and make wild guesses about locations. And why not, as a bit of pointless fun? So here were some of the places bandied about as possibilities for next or future years:
    • Alexandria: This would be close to Europe, be convenient for the Middle East and accessible to members of the Arabic & Hebrew Wikipedias. However it would be hot.
    • Australia: People said to the Australians “when are you guys going to host this?” I said “but the weather in Australia in August sucks! It’s cold, and it can be rainy.” But paradoxically, this just made people even keener – 2006 and 2007 were really hot, so a cool / cold location actually confers brownie points (Average temperature range shown here – 9 to 17 degrees Celsius average in August) … And whilst I would love to have Wikimania in Australia, having seen it first-hand, the effort involved in running and organising this is just huge! All the organisers of this have been absolutely amazing, and I look at what they have done and think “wow, that’s a metric tonne of work … dunno if I could handle that!” Brianna L seemed to have had similar concerns. So the current plan is give it some time, and to bid for Wikimania in 2010, and if we get it (and hopefully even if we don’t) to have a local Australian + NZ Wikimania in 2009 (probably in Canberra) to give us some practice and to put to some faces to names, and to get together in a way that is hard to in a large country.
    • South America: Gets you southern hemisphere + cool, plus sounds like they have an enthusiastic bid team.
    • London: Covers Europe, is accessible from the US, has a strong community. (Possible downside: expensive). But, as a bonus, the devs could have the Hacking Days at Rob Church’s flat / house. Just rock up. Uninvited. No more excuses from him about not turning up – just take it to him. :-)
    • Helsinki was also mentioned.
    • Bidding for the next Wikimania: Will probably have bids for the next 2 or maybe 3 in quicker succession (maybe two months or so apart) – so 2008, 2009, and maybe 2010 will possibly be bid for within the next 6 months. Benefit of that is that people can plan and organise sponsors; also allows people to learn.
  • The breakfasts were in a dining hall, held from 7:00 to 8:30 AM. And between 8:20 AM and 8:29 AM a large number of Wikipedians would arrive (including myself, usually at 8:29), just scraping in before the cut-off, no doubt to the annoyance of the kitchen staff. Definite Wikipedian <–> slacker correlation somewhere in there. Or maybe that’s just me :-)
  • Laptop fashion: Most popular laptops brands among Wikimania attendees were by far and away both Apple laptops & IBM ThinkPads. Having stickers for Wikimedia, Wikipedia, Firefox, Wikimania, and so forth stuck to the lid also brought bonus points, and a conundrum for the Apple owners: Do you add stickers, thus potentially ruining the sleek white plastic or polished metal exterior, but conferring status points? And if yes, do you cover the glowing Apple logo? Oh, these must be difficult and vexing questions indeed! :-)
  • Speaking of laptops, man, I wish I had bought a laptop in Taiwan. Shops were selling IBM / Lenovo X61 ThinkPad laptops (1 Gig RAM, 120 Gig HDD, Intel Core 2 Duo T7100 Santa Rosa processor, nice slim form factor) for TWD$38,000, which is equivalent to AUD$1330. I checked the price for the same model when I got back to Australia, and it’s locally around AUD$3100 (i.e. it was only 42% of the price in Taiwan). For that difference, I could quite happily learn to ignore the Chinese meta-characters on the keyboard.
  • Tip for people planning on attending Wikimania: take lots of business cards. I took about 15 (which I thought would be plenty), but actually about 30 would have been the right number.

And lastly a few photos:

Wikipedians buying fruit at the night markets:
Wikipedians buying fruit at the night markets

Whacky Taiwanese zoo sign: “It’s okay to wave at the Panda Bear, but riding him like a racehorse will make him sad.”
Whacky Taiwanese zoo sign: “It’s okay to wave at the Panda Bear, but riding him like a racehorse will make him sad.”

Yuri being pandered, after falling asleep in a massage chair.
Yuri being pandered, after falling asleep in a massage chair.

Lodewijk takes the Starbucks versus Starbucks-imitator challenge. Starbucks won.
Lodewijk takes the Starbucks versus Starbucks-imitator challenge.

Chaos as people tore the wiki ball apart. Sadly, nobody burst out of the ball.
Chaos as people tore the wiki ball apart. Sadly, nobody burst out of the ball.

Delphine and Cormac jokingly go head-to-head: Taiwanese toys at 50 paces!
Delphine and Cormac go head-to-head: Taiwanese toys at 50 paces!