Boston’s Skyhook Will Map Tweets, Check-ins at San Francisco Marathon

“Knowing where someone is in real time—particularly if you have some context around that—is an incredibly valuable marketing opportunity.” So said Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson at a conference on geolocation in San Francisco this week. But sometimes it can be difficult to visualize that value—to imagine how proximity might translate into profit. Thanks to a collaboration between Boston’s Skyhook Wireless and the organizers of this weekend’s San Francisco Marathon, it will be possible for anyone to track how thousands of marathon spectators access location-based services on their mobile devices.

Skyhook, which makes the Wi-Fi- and GPS-based positioning software inside the Apple iPhone and iPad and many other mobile devices, has created an online map that will show geotagged mobile activity along the route of the San Francisco Marathon, which starts at 5:30 am on Sunday, July 25. Everytime someone in the crowd—or in the race, for that matter—uses a Skyhook-powered app to get a location reading, Skyhook will show it on the map.

And when they send Twitter updates, browse or upload geotagged photos on Flickr, or check in on Foursquare, that information will show up too, in near-real time. (There will be a delay of up to two hours for processing, according to Kate Imbach, Skyhook’s vice president of marketing.) The map even comes with a history slider that allows visitors to see how the data evolves over time.

The marathon map is a public version of Skyhook’s location intelligence service, called SpotRank, which is designed to show population density based on location requests. Skyhook has done this type of thing before—first at the Boston Marathon in April, and again at the Country Music Association Music Festival in Nashville, TN, last month—but the San Francisco project is the most elaborate yet, supplementing Skyhook’s basic location-request data with information pulled in from Twitter, Flickr, and Foursquare.

Skyhook's SpotRank map for the San Francisco MarathonWhat’s the point? Partly, it’s just an experiment—and a great marketing move, both for Skyhook and for partners hoping to move the geolocation business forward. “It’s new for us and new for [the San Francisco Marathon], and we don’t know exactly where it’s going, but we know it’s a new way to look at the urban environment in the context of mobile activity,” says Imbach. “Location requests are interesting, but when you add in the context of the social activity on mobile devices, it gets a lot more interesting….This type of data is potentially huge for advertisers.”

For example, it’s long been a vision of developers of location-based services to send discount offers over mobile channels to people who are near specific retail locations. The more context that’s available about what these people are doing or what they’re interested in, the more advertisers could tailor these offers.

The marathon map could also be interesting as a demonstration for urban planners, race course designers, or fans of individual runners, Imbach speculates. Aggregated geotagged data can also have unexpected uses. At the CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Imbach says, it was possible to determine which bands were playing at which stages—and even how excited the audiences were—simply by searching the tweets aggregated on Skyhook’s map for specific band names and for certain punctuation, such as exclamation points. Of course, the data on Skyhook’s maps is made anonymous and can’t be tracked to individual mobile users.

“Skyhook’s SpotRank map for The San Francisco Marathon allows us to provide a unique view into how the city of San Francisco adapts to the race,” said Lyz Luke, media coordinator for The San Francisco Marathon, in a statement. “The map creates a unique online hub for where spectators from all over the world can experience the excitement of the Marathon.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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