geo-fencing | MIT Center for Civic Media

Thinking about Design with Geo-fences

Here at the Center for Civic Media, we're exploring the use of smartphone apps for civic engagement. I'm really excited about using geo-fences for civic engagement; my project Action Path uses them to trigger push notifications about opportunities to participate as you walk down the street. But it's still an open question: What constitutes good uses and good design for geo-fences?

Nathan Matias and I ran a workshop on March 14, 2014 at MIT exploring this question with other students interested in using geo-fences in mobile design. The following are our notes and takeaways.

The What and Why of Geo-fences
First off, it's important to differentiate geo-fencing from geo-location and geo-awareness. Here are some definitions:

  • Geo-location: identifying the real-world location of a user with GPS, Wi-Fi, and other sensors
  • Geo-fencing: taking an action when a user enters or exits a geographic area
  • Geo-awareness: customizing and localizing the user experience based on rough approximation of user location, often used in browsers

Since geofencing is focused on action, not all location-based mobile experiences require it. Many designs can and should avoid the messiness of using geo-fencing by relying on basic geolocation services.

Geofence Example
Entering and exiting a geo-fence

Good, or common, uses of geo-fencing include: location tracking of objects and users, lifehacking, games (in the form of run-arounds, check-ins), and hyper-local ads and offers. Apps that are obvious employers of geo-fences include: foursquare (check-in reminders), ChildrenTracker (alerts for parents when kids are home or at school), and Field Trip (notifications about places to see around a community). However, there are some clever, non-obvious uses of geo-fences like Google Keep, which allows you to set location-based reminders for notes to self (lifehacking) and Pandora's radio app, which sends hyper-local ads to you as you walk-about, most notably McDonald's.

Action Path: A Location-Based Tool for Civic Reflection and Engagement

This is the talk I delivered for the "Civic Media Geography: Experiments InĀ Cosmopolitanism, Citizenship and Accountability" panel I organized at Place, (Dis)Place and Citizenship: Eleventh Annual Conference in Citizenship Studies at Wayne State University, Detroit, MI on March 21, 2014.

Today, I'm going to talk about a tool I'm building. It's a smartphone app called Action Path. But it hasn't been deployed yet, so I can't tell you how it's revolutionized civic learning or engagement. But I can tell you about my motivation for building it. Specifically, I want to talk about the theories of citizenship which inspire me and what I see as currently missing in the landscape of approaches to civic technology, and even civic engagement more broadly.