Manual check-in versus automatic positioning

The picture above shows the difference between asking where someone is with an SMS and getting this information automatically with a location-based software such as Aka-Aki. This was a big debate few years ago. A more recent debate concerns the manual check-in versus automatic positioning with mobile social software.

The whole argument about manual check-in on platforms such as Foursquare versus automatic positioning (on Google latitude for instance) is fascinating to me. While some pundits criticize the idea of letting people manually check-in, various empirical studies shows why automation can be problematic. It's crazy how some people get grumpy and think that self-declarating one's location is old-school and passé. Some examples below of academic work about this issue. Of course it's not directly about current applications such as Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt or Latitude but it certainly gives some perspective.

Vihavainen, S., Oulasvirta, A., Sarvas, R. "I Can’t Lie Anymore” - The Implications of Location Automation for Mobile Social Applications. Proceedings of MobiQuitous 2009, IEEE Press.

The paper examines a sample of users of Jaiku, a social networking, micro-blogging and lifestreaming service bought by Google three years ago. Using this platform, the researchers investigated the appropriation of this service that automates disclosure and diffusion of location information. Here are some excerpts I found relevant in Vihavainen's paper:

"Human factors research has shown that automation is a mixed blessing. It changes the role of the human in the loop with effects on understanding, errors, control, skill, vigilance, and ultimately trust and usefulness. We raise the issue that many current mobile applications involve mechanisms that surreptitiously collect and propagate location information among users and we provide results from the first systematic real world study of the matter. (...) The results reveal both “classic” human factors problems with the automation’s logic and novel issues related to the fact that location automation at times compromised their control of social situations. (...) The results convey that unsuitable automated features can preclude use in a group. While one group found automated features useful, and another was indifferent toward it, the third group stopped using the application almost entirely. (...) These differences highlight the importance of needs, activities, and structures of the intended user groups as factors for acceptance of automation."


S. Benford, W. Seagar, M. Flintham, R. Anastasi, D. Rowland, J. Humble, D. Stanton, J. Bowers, N. Tandavanitj, M. Adams, J.R. Farr, A. Oldroyd, and J. Sutton. “The error of our ways: The experience of self- reported position in a location-based game”. In Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing. (UbiComp 2004), Nottingham., pp. 70-87,

In this paper that is a bit older, the researchers studied how users of a collaborative location-based game employed self-reported positioning by manually reveal their positions to remote players by manipulating electronic maps. Results were the following:

" It appears that remote participants are largely un- troubled by the relatively high positional error associated with self reports. Our analysis suggests that this may because mobile players declare themselves to be in plausible locations such as at common landmarks, ahead of themselves on their current trajectory (stating their intent) or behind themselves (confirming previously visited locations). These observations raise new requirements for the future development of automated positioning systems and also suggest that self- reported positioning may be a useful fallback when automated systems are un- available or too unreliable."

Nova, N., Girardin, F., Molinari, G. & Dillenbourg, P. (2006): The Underwhelming Effects of Automatic Location-Awareness on Collaboration in a Pervasive Game, International Conference on the Design of Cooperative Systems (May 9-12, 2006, Carry-le-Rouet, Provence, France).

Finally, this is also an issue I addressed in my Phd research concerning the automation of location-awareness, I also address these problems with a different angle. We also used a collaboration location-based game (a quite common platform for running field studies at the time) and uncovered that automating a process such as location-awareness is not always fruitful. Letting people send their own position appears to be more efficient than broadcasting mere location information:

"To some extent, not giving location-awareness information can be a way to support collaboration more effectively; since players may communicate more and better explain their activity and intents. Self- disclosure can hence be more effective since users could express both information about their intents relevant for the task context and their location. They could also send it whenever they want to express either their current or past positions or the intended places they are heading to. Another interesting benefit of letting the users express their position is to give them the control of privacy issues, one of the major issue related to LBS usage. They have indeed the choice to disclose information about their whereabouts, which is of tremendous importance to avoid the users’ perception of privacy invasion."