Monday, June 09, 2008

Where everybody knows your name...

Sense Networks emerged from stealth mode earlier today with a press release announcing both themselves and their products. It shows that even behind the most boring press releases some very cool technology can be lurking.

I wouldn't have taken a second look at the company based on the rather dry press release, but fortuntely they took the time last week to talk to Brady Forrest over on the O'Reilly Radar, who in turn took the time to talks about Sense Networks and CitySense. They also got some coverage from TechCrunch as well, but you'd expect that. TechCrunch covers everybody...

CREDIT: Sense Networks
CitySense shows you how active locations are (top) and which ones are abnormally active (bottom) in real time.

This startup is interesting. A big problem for location-aware startup companies is that they need location data. Normally they try and get this from their users, but most of the time their applications aren't really that useful until they get a critical mass of users. But getting a critical mass of users without having any a useful application is almost impossible. It's a classic Catch-22...

Sense Networks on the other had has been able to obtain data from taxi cabs, and it uses the origin and destination data from those taxi journeys to model the city. Then on top of this initial data they can then add in their user data, in accordance with a reassuringly strict privacy policy. Users get immediate benefits from the application, as Sense Networks have found that they can get a fairly good picture of the ebb and flow of city life just using the data from the taxi journeys, and that means it is that much easier to gather a critical mass of users to make sure their application takes off...

The immediate worry is that initially at least, reliant as they are on data from taxis, the application will model a specific demographic rather than showing a true representation of how the city functions. However that might be my European perspective getting in the way. The way a US city works, even a faux European city such as New York or Boston, is very different to the way a UK or European city works. Over here they might be better off relying on data from local buses rather than on taxis.

However that aside, I've seen a couple of attempts at solving similar, but actually less ambitious, problems. They've more or less all failed due to the "critical number of users" problem. But to get off the ground Sense Networks doesn't need a critical number of users, they can answer the question "Where is everybody?" without them. With them they hope to be able to answer the question "Where is everybody like me?", that's impressive stuff...

Of course as well as the current Blackberry application, Citysense is coming soon to the iPhone. But I guess that's only to be expected?

Update: As predicted, we have a new 3G iPhone.