Can We Work Together in Twitter Town?

18 Jun, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong

Hybrid socio-geospatial network offers glimpses into potential new working paradigms.

At the Where 2.0 Conference in San Jose, California, in late May, sessions were fast and furious. Inside the darkened ballroom of The Fairmont Hotel, Bradley Forest, conference program chair and taskmaster, graciously herded the presenters on and off the stage within a strictly enforced 15-minute time limit. All were in attendance to discuss developing technologies and creating value in the location industry, and the lineup included Electronic Frontier Foundation’s staff attorney Kevin Bankston, who was there to explain the rights and the obligations of business owners tangled in government surveillance programs; Google Earth and Google Maps director John Hanke, who came to discuss what he called “the Web geo ecosystem”; and MapQuest’s senior vice-president James Greiner, who shared “an ethnography study” of MapQuest users. Everyone had to keep their comments equally brief.

Perhaps the speedy entrances and exits were a reflection of the youthful dynamism of Twittervision, a recurring topic at the show. David Troy, from San Francisco-based Twitter, who admits he’s “pathologically compelled to mix disparate technologies,” crossbred the globe-navigation functions in the Google Maps API and his own social networking platform, Twitter, which allows users to announce, via mobile phone, instant messaging or the Web, what they're doing moment-by-moment. The result is Twittervision, a digital map, available in 2D and 3D, where member-volunteered tidbits pop up and fade away in an endless succession in real time. In the self-centered Twittervision universe -- the map automatically rotates to a user’s location when he or she submits a remark -- the disclosures are often personal but not always useful. Seconds apart from one another, Daniel8802 gleefully reports, “I’m getting a Wii tonight”; Alcides laments, “Bad day”; and Katem notes she’s just heard “a false fire alarm.”

It’s tempting to dismiss the whole Twitter phenomenon with a snicker. The slew of terms spawned by the user community -- twitterer, twittering, twitterific, and so on -- practically begs to be condemned. But not so fast. As childish as it looks in its current incarnation, Twittervision’s open API deserves further consideration especially as a prospective business collaboration platform.

Combining the Google Maps API and the real-time feed from Twitter members, David Troy came up with Twittervision, available in 2D and 3D.

Socio-Geospatial Enterprises

Twittervision broadcasts, or tweets, consist of details that members have chosen to reveal about themselves and their daily activities. You probably don’t care that Wikiu in France is listening to “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” or that Skud just crawled out of bed. But what if, using a similar interface, you could monitor when your subcontractors in Mumbai and Jakarta are coming on line? With some work, the API could probably be linked to certain fields in ERP (enterprise resource planning) and PLM (product lifecycle management) systems. What if you could set it up so that whenever warehouse inventory falls below 2,000 units in a certain region, your ERP broadcasts a red-flagged tweet?

If your business involves mobile fleets equipped with GPS devices, they could be arranged to ping their coordinates at regular intervals -- say, every 15 minutes. If the locations were fed into a Twittervision-like environment, the system could be a powerful real-time tracking interface.

Footprints of Assets

Let’s say that for some reason you become fascinated with a certain Twitter member, or a twitterer. You can add him or her into your circle as a friend, then follow him or her. By the same token, you could potentially use the same setup to follow the trail of certain GPS-enabled assets on the move -- perhaps laptops that are en route to another location -- and see where they were at a certain time. Twitter feeds are indexed in Google, so they’re searchable.

Twitterrers are everywhere, so no matter what time you log on to Twittervision, a fair number of posts are coming up. During peak time, the tweet bubbles are so dense and so fast you can hardly read the messages before they are displaced by a new round. The spinning atlas can get you dizzy too. The all-encompassing display mode may be a bit too overwhelming for a business application, but the UI seems configurable for selective monitoring if needed.

Are They Where They Say They Are?

Tweet bubbles are displayed on the map according to where members claim they are. In other words, the accuracy of the posters’ global positions are only as reliable as the honesty of the posters themselves. But what if your business is location-sensitive? What if you are, say, a military contractor with certain digital design files you don’t want people from certain regions to access? Then you’ll probably need the big guns, some stalwart location-verification technology like Quova.

“Encryption software, for example, cannot be sold to North Korea,” reminded Marie Alexander, president and CEO of Quova. That’s because OFAC (Office of Foreign Asset Controls) enforces sanctions on the transfer of such technologies to certain countries based on U.S. foreign policy. “So if somebody wants to buy and download that kind of software from you, you’ll have to check to make sure the buyer’s not from one of the blocked countries.”

In such transactions, you probably don’t want to rely on wherever the buyer claims he or she resides. Quova reportedly has developed a patented technology to identify with high accuracy the location of IP addresses. Alexander estimates there are currently about 4.2 billion IP addresses floating around in the cyberspace. To pinpoint the physical location of one, Quova relies on a sophisticated data-collection network and employs network geography analysts to hand-map the infrastructure of the Internet.

“IP address registries like the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority alone don’t tell you the whole picture,” explained Alexander. In some cases, though the IP address may be registered under the headquarters of the assigned business, it could be in use elsewhere in satellite offices. IP addresses can also be masked, or disguised to look like they are somewhere other than where they really are. Quova has established a global data-collection network, which sends out distributed trace routes to ping and identify the most likely locations of IP addresses. Using scoring algorithms, Quova’s technology checks the IP addresses against the collected data and the registry listings to single out the most probable geographic locations.

The location of most IP addresses can be narrowed down to a metropolitan area, within about a 50-mile radius, said Alexander. And that’s sufficient for most Quova clients. But if, for some reason, a business owner needs even more specific data, Quova can employ real-time tracing methods, such as WiFi, to locate an IP address down to the city-block level.


Twitter has also spawned Quakr, a volunteer-run Web site that aims to build a 3D representation of the world with geo-tagged photos, mostly from the photo-sharing site Flickr. Judging from their blog entries, Quakr’s founding trio -- Dave Sant, Katie Portwin, and a mysterious 35-year-old developer named “Hard but Not” -- seemed surprised at the media attention they’d been getting, first at the Xtech Conference (May 15-18, Paris, France) and then at Where 2.0. The application is still in its early phase, at times suffering from data overload.

Quakr aims to build a 3D world by reassembling digital photos according to the coordinates and the angles where they were acquired. As seen here, the program sometimes suffers from information overload at this early stage.


About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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