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

3/20/13Follow @jpruth

At last night’s New York Tech Meetup, Foursquare CEO and co-founder Dennis Crowley talked about some of his company’s plans for its technology and wealth of data, which he said can curate places and events that users of the app may want to visit.

He displayed a video heat map of daily Foursquare check-ins in Manhattan that demonstrated how the company captures what is happening in the city based on where, when, and why users check in. “Every single day, every single city around the world lights up for us,” he said.

Much like a digital field in the movie “Tron: Legacy” blooming with color, the heat map of Manhattan displayed last night blossomed with scads of Foursquare check-ins that took place over the course of a day. Yellows represented coffee shops and movie theaters while greens and blues were associated with nightlife.

“Anywhere around the world, I can tell you where people are going to be 15 minutes from now,” Crowley said. “Tell me five things you like in San Francisco, I can predict 20 things you’re going to like in New York or Chicago. This is the power of what we can do with this data. People are just starting to get hip to it.”

Here’s an overlay of 500 million Foursquare check-ins from a three-month period from around the world.

Crowley’s plans for Foursquare’s technology and data range from passive location-based notifications sent to users when they enter neighborhoods to new services that will let businesses target deals at specific types of consumers, such as those who have patronized rival shops.

“We’re in the process of rolling out tools that allow merchants to run those types of offers,” he said. Foursquare already offers businesses the option to pay to promote specials and discounts at their stores when people check-in.

It was rather appropriate for Foursquare to talk up its future at New York Tech Meetup. The company showed off its concept in 2009 at the forum before its services even launched. Crowley said, he and co-founder Naveen Selvadurai were looking for a hometown boost before braving the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX for the official Foursquare debut.

“We were literally afraid people were going to laugh us off the stage [in Texas],” Crowley said.

Part of Foursquare’s early focus, he said, centered on putting playfulness in social 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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