Other ways companies know where you are ... and use it

Marco Santambrogio, 11/01/2011

In recent weeks there’s been quite a bit of discussion about the pros and cons of sharing your location online, be it via Twitter, Foursquare, Gowalla or other services. But are these discussions missing the point? There are plenty of “other ways” the companies with which you interact on a regular basis can, if they wish, determine your location. Adena Schutzberg ponders how these types of organizations will use location data in the future.

In recent weeks there’s been quite a bit of discussion about the pros and cons of sharing your location online, be it via Twitter, Foursquare, Gowalla or other services. I don’t participate in any of these, mostly because it’s my contention that anyone who needs to know where I am will know another way. What do I mean? Well, my Dad always knew he could get me on my cell phone. I let my brother know when I’m traveling overnight. My colleagues know when I’m traveling for business or am on vacation. My running friends assume I’ll show up for “standing” commitments unless I say otherwise. They also know when I’m traveling to an out-of-town race. That’s plenty of information sharing for my lifestyle.

What I’ve been thinking about, then, is “the other way” companies I interact with know where I am. I use several “services” that use some kind of ID card that tracks when I visit their locations. Each of them has a different way of tracking my comings and goings and payments. But, unlike the services mentioned above, I have a “personal” relationship with each organization; there’s no “middle man.” Also worth pointing out, so far as I know, they do not share any location information they have about me with others. Let me share the details about how these organizations “track” me.

First up is my gym. I refer to it as “the cheap gym” because it’s very inexpensive, $10 a month. When you sign up you get a key fob with a barcode that stores your ID number. Luckily, when I signed up they told me I didn’t need that, I really just needed to know the number. When I show up at the gym I call out my five-digit number to the attendant at the desk. He or she keys it in and confirms that my photo on the computer screen matches my face (more or less). I go there enough that two of the staffers know my number by heart and key it in before I call it out. I really like this system since I don’t have to carry the fob or risk losing it. I laugh to myself when other patrons have to dig out their fob to have it scanned, as though I know a special secret.

This gym has lots of locations. The membership I have entitles me to use any other club location for $10 a visit. That seems reasonable to me. Last spring I ran a marathon at the other end of Massachusetts. I carefully researched where the local club was so I could take a shower before driving home. I brought my key fob since I was unsure if they’d be able to use just my ID. I walked in with it and a ten dollar bill and was surprised and pleased when, after I noted I was from a Boston area club, the attendant just waved me through without scanning the fob, asking for my ID number or taking my money. I think I said I’d just run a marathon, maybe even mentioned I came in fourth. That may have afforded me the free ride. Still, I would have thought the company would want to know how people use its network of clubs.

Next up in my world of tracking is my coffee shop. It’s a smallish chain and offers a special card for around $150 a year that entitles you to a coffee/drink a day and some discounts on food. A purchase entitles you to free wireless and my favorite perk, the cushy chairs near the window. Ideally, you order coffee and show them your fob or card to indicate you are a member of the “club” and thus don’t need to pay for your drink. Interestingly, there is no scanning of the card, nor calling out the ID number; you just show the card. Now, when I bought my membership in late 2009 for 2010, the manager made it clear that if I lost it, there’d be no way to replace it. I listened attentively and (of course) managed to lose my key fob ID by February. But, the manager was able to get me a new one. He did make clear that even if he couldn’t, he and his crew at my “home” cafe would be able to continue to give me free coffee. I’d just not be able to get it at any other location.

The odd thing about this use of the card is that the company has no idea how many coffees I’ll get for my $150 or which stores I visit. I’d think it would want to know that. I happened to visit one day when the manager’s boss was there. I asked her why they didn’t scan the cards. She explained that they didn’t have the technology to do so. They did, however, have the technology to scan loaded gift cards, which they also sell. My tech friends tell me this is not uncommon. So, outside of me walking into the venue and people seeing me there, this company doesn’t have any documentation of my whereabouts via my card.

Now, this company could track me another way if it wanted to: it could tap into its Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) information about when I sign onto its Wi-Fi. So, someone somewhere, perhaps only the ISP, may have a good sense as to when I’m at what locations and for how long.

The final swipe card I carry and use regularly is my Charlie Card, the fare card for Boston public transit. I swipe it every time I get on a bus or the subway. It keeps track of what line I ride so I get free or discounted transfers. But aside from that, it knows very little. Unlike cities such as Washington, D.C., where you scan the card both getting on AND off, here you only scan getting on or getting off, but not both. So it knows only the location where I got on or off one line, just half of my travel details. Further, unlike my gym membership, which is connected to me (my name, address, phone, picture and credit card), my Charlie Card is anonymous. It could be connected to me if I chose to register it online. That would allow me to get back the money on it if I lost it. And, it could be connected to me if I chose to add money to it with my credit card. I use cash. So far, I’ve taken the chance and remained totally anonymous to the MBTA.

Do I mind that these organizations have or could have (if they tried harder) location and other information about me? No. I have an individual relationship with each organization and agree to share certain information about myself with them. Sometimes that information is required (the digital picture at the gym) and other times not (if I chose not to tell the MBTA who I am, all it knows is “someone” took the 77 and then the 73 buses on Tuesday afternoon).

Would I be against them using the information I provide, just as the supermarket does with its “affinity card,” to offer me appropriate offers? No. Would I be okay if the gym did a deal with the Mexican place across the street such that if I work out four times this week I get a free drink with my burrito? Sure, that’d be cool. Would I, when I book a trip, like to key into the gym’s network so I’d know if there was an outlet in the city to which I was traveling? Sure. I’d be okay with the coffee shop doing the same thing. If its system knew I was traveling to a city where it had a shop, I’d want to know. The transportation authority does something along these lines already, just not linked to location. It offers a “show your card and save” deal with events and attractions accessible via public transit.

I, for one, am interested in how these types of organizations will use location data. I suspect that perhaps some will tune into the “check in” model of Foursquare. Foursquare just recently began rolling out a dashboard for its partners to see how many and what kind of check-ins they get. Others will build their own programs tuned to their clientele. Or perhaps these types of programs will merge when a cell phone is used as an ID card for the gym, a coffee card at the coffee shop and a public transit pass. If nothing else, these providers are behind the curve in using location data. And I suppose I am too, since I’m not a user of phone-based location sharing. This may be a good fit for me, for now

Author: Adena Schutzberg

Marco Santambrogio

Founder and Managing Director

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