After where, is when the next big thing?

So it seems where is as mainstream as its possible to get with most popular online services rolling location into their products to improve the quality of the service, be that finding friends, the location of interesting restaurants or where is the best place to buy a Nikon camera.

As noted here on previous occasions, it is very easy to become fixated on location as the next big thing, and indeed there is much media coverage of the “battle for place” since the introduction of the Facebook places API, however location is still only one of the numerous contextual signals that make a service valuable.

This point was made very real for me on my way home from the officer earlier this week..

I have become a regular user of Borisbikes, the  “Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme” to give it its official title, which allow registered users to pick up a bike at a local pick up point and drop it off at a destination elsewhere. There happens to be a bike docking station just a hundred metres from the Google Office and another just outside the railway station I use 2 Km away. Perfect…

But as users of the system will know, there are not always bikes available to pick up or more subtly empty docking locations to leave leave your bicycle at your destination. Fortunately Transport of London, the people behind the Borisbikes, have made available a real time feed of docking site status via an API, allowing applications like the Android Cycle Hire Widget to be developed.

So now from the comfort of my desk or where-ever else I may be in London just by looking at my phones home screen I can see if there are any bikes available nearby and then check if I will be able to drop the bike of at my destination. Key to making this happen are of course my location and the real time feed of docking site status;  the where and when.

When I reach the railway station I dock my bike hopefully!!  and then check another app on my phone, this time for the time and platform for the next train to take be home. Again when is clearly important here, but now added to the contextual mix is a personalisation signal in that I have previously stored the station closest to my home in the app.

OK so this is not quite the personal jet-pack we may have hoped was the transport of the future, but making the relevant information available at the relevant time and place really does make a difference !

Written and submitted from the Google Offices, London (51.495N, 0.146W)

4 replies on “After where, is when the next big thing?”

If only the realtime data feed were open and approved – Cycle Hire Widget and everyone else are all screenscraping their website, possibly illegally, until the data is actually opened up by TFL 🙂

Hi Kenton,

That’s interesting, I was under the impression there was an “official” if not production strength feed, I did not release you had to screen scrape ! Shame on TfL, that’s another feed to add to the list we are all waiting for.. Bus Schedules anyone ?
Great job on Cycle Hire Widget !


Ed – one would argue that this is more an example of a spacio-temporal analysis problem. Do you think that the problem may not where is a bike to hire or a slot to return it, it’s that Boris Bikes needs to fine-tune their distribution of bikes and racks?

Of course, this is at the heart of Google’s world view. Should the world be molded around information or should information mold itself around the world? I’ve actually done an analysis of bicycle racks at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The transportation director, unfortunately, has a PhD in Geography. So he wanted this insanely complex analysis done to determine where bicycle racks needed to be added (or removed). The same information could be gathered by simply visiting the racks at different times of day, but that lacks “rigor”. Afterall, the world should be predictable, right?

The problem is the world is a very dynamic place, especially when you get people in the picture. Even if Boris Bikes improved the distribution of bikes, depending on temporal factors like weather or special events, you would still find yourself wanting to know if there was going to be a bike at your origin and a slot at your destination.

The scheme hasn’t been running too long. My guess is they will add capacity , remove capacity as they work out the flow of the bikes versus the location of the docking stations. In other cities I have seen vans picking up bikes from some locations and relocating them during the night to other areas to keep this balance in place for customers.

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