From Places to People: The Evolution of Geolocation

A history of location-based services.

By on April 23, 2013

File this one under things you never hear: “I’d be lost without my geolocation service!” Insert GPS and many of us have uttered these words before and the vast majority have heard it at least once. For a technology so vital to our day-to-day lives, geolocation doesn’t always get the sort of recognition it deserves.

The technology uses a GPS signal to triangulate a device’s position and helps us locate new places, find local offers and let social media friends know what we’re doing and where. Early applications took the form of directions from sites like MapQuest and restaurant ratings from Yelp. The advent of smartphones and 3G introduced geolocation apps to the world like Yelp’s Monocle. Among the first to use the technology to link people was Skout, a mobile social network app with more than 10 million accounts, where users can instantly connect with new friends or dates based on proximity. Companies like Foursquare built social media businesses around the technology, creating a system of check-ins and badges.

Large social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter quickly saw the value in the technology as well. Try uploading an image to Instagram from a phone and you have the option to tag your location. What once was limited to a user’s personal social network is now broadcast to entire social networks, letting people form new connections and allowing new insights into our culture on sites like thisisnow.com.

Other geolocation features such as geofencing, a virtual boundary surrounding a location, have applications for both businesses and people. Outdoor product company The North Face uses geofencing to send offers to consumers not only around its stores, but deals relevant to their interests and activities based on their proximity to certain locations like parks and ski resorts. Alternatively, this same technology can keep families more connected and provide parents peace of mind from afar through services like Family Locator, which alerts parents when a family member arrives somewhere or comes home.

Geolocation may be an underused word but the technology certainly isn’t. Connecting our lives to our locations has opened up new ways to share our lives, understand the world we live in and, sometimes, find our ways home.