Dennis Crowley Reveals His Plans for Foursquare’s Mountain of Data

3/20/13Follow @jpruth

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utilities in the mobile space. “How do you make discovering new places feel like finding the boomerang in ‘The Legend of Zelda’?” he asked. “That’s still a lot of what motivates us.” Earning badges and accolades such as becoming the “Mayor” of a location quickly became Foursquare’s shtick. Crowley showed some of Foursquare’s early versions and its original, very basic user interface. “Black and white was all the rage back then,” he joked.

Injecting some personality into the early era of stolid utility on mobile phones, he said, helped make Foursquare’s mark. “This is the stuff that got us to where we are,” he said. “This got us to 160 people [on staff], 30 million users, and 3 billion check-ins. Now we’re starting to figure out ways to flex all the data that we’ve gotten.”

These days the company is going beyond game mechanics to motivate users to check in. Foursquare has built up a database, Crowley said, of quick tips written by users that help inform others about the places they visit. However, he said a lot of people still think of Foursquare as the same company it was four years ago.

He also said the company fights naysayers who “pooh-pooh” check-in services and cite the demise of Dodgeball, Crowley’s prior startup in the sector that was acquired and then discontinued by Google.

Foursquare’s database now boasts some 50 million places, he said, populated by users over the years as they added locations from taco shops to schools and steakhouses they visit. The company’s technology is rather pervasive, Crowley said, often accessed without people realizing it. “Even those who haven’t used Foursquare before, I guarantee you’ve touched the API in the past,” he said.

For instance, location tags that appear with Instagram photos are supplied by data from Crowley’s company. “If you use Path, any time someone tags a place, that’s coming from Foursquare. If you use Vine, every time someone tags a video of a place, that’s Foursquare,” Crowley said. “If you call up [an] Uber cab and say ‘Pick me up at The Magician on the Lower East Side,’ that’s Foursquare.”

He called Foursquare a location layer for the Internet and he estimates some 40,000 developers build technology on top of his company’s platform and data.

Part of last night’s demo showed off the latest version of Foursquare for Android devices, which taps into the database of check-ins to find interesting places without the user checking in. “We’re starting to get really good at leveraging that data to call attention to things you might be interested in,” Crowley said.

That can include suggestions on places to go after the last venue visited, tailored with tips from a user’s friends. Curating location-based services and search results are long overdue, Crowley said.

“We’ve always thought that local search is broken,” he said. Typically, when different people use search engines to find information on the same locale, they tend to get the same results, he said. Foursquare wants to personalize local search to find places relevant to its users’ unique tastes.

“I don’t want people to just type in ‘food’ and ‘coffee’ and ‘Italian’,” Crowley said. “I want people to type in ‘fireplace’ and ‘bacon’ and ‘Tuesday.’ What is going on Tuesday that I should know about?”

Foursquare can rank the discovered places according to how much the app thinks users will like the venues using the demographics of other visitors. “Do tourists go there or do locals go there? Do people who actually go to lots of coffee shops go to this place?” Crowley asked. “We can tell lots of interesting stuff from this data and are finding cool ways to tease that in the app.”

Looking ahead, Crowley plans to put the Foursquare app to work even when it is not actively being used. That could include alerting users that their friends are nearby as well as pulling up information about new neighborhoods as they arrive.

“You just stepped into the West Village and you don’t know a lot about [it] because you’re phone doesn’t spend a lot of time here,” he said. “You better know about these two places that are real interesting around 11:30 a.m. because we think you’d really like them.”

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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