Interview with Dr Tyler Bell of Yahoo! Geo Technologies

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There has been a lot of recent interest in Yahoo! Geo Technologies. Could you tell me more about the product your team has been working on?

The Yahoo! Geo Technologies group wants to connect our users with the world around them. Yahoo! is an information and technology company – we collect and create content and get it into the hands of our users in the most relevant and useful way possible. Geography plays a big part in how we do that; we are always looking at how we can better join the Web world and the real world using geo technologies.

Last May, we released Yahoo! GeoPlanet, which helps bridge the gap between the real and virtual worlds by providing an open, permanent, and intelligent infrastructure for geo-referencing data on the Internet. You can learn more at http://developer.yahoo.com/geo/.

In the fall, we introduced Fire Eagle, which acts as a location broker that allows users to take their location to the Web. Users have complete control over their data with Fire Eagle: they choose which third party applications to share their location with, and at what resolution or granularity they wish to expose it – as broad as country or state, to as detailed as a long/lat co-ordinate, and everything in between. More information is at http://fireeagle.yahoo.net/.

The bottom line is that location-aware systems provide a more topical, more relevant user experience. When users interact with the Internet and, more specifically, with Yahoo!, we aim to provide them with the most geo-relevant information available.

How will the current economic climate impact the area of geo technologies?

In this economy, ad spends and budgets are decreasing, making the importance of getting the right products to the right people even more critical. Geo-relevance and geo-targeting are central to this effort, and we are looking at ways we can increase the efficacy of the geographic technologies so advertisers can be more successful, and users are not presented irrelevant offerings.

Why is it so crucial to geo-connect information on the Internet? How does this enrich the user experience?

Newspapers have been the medium of choice to convey information such as local news, and to display ads with geographic relevance – local ads for local services. The newspaper's traditional success in this domain is based on the geography implicit in their distribution network: they know where their readers are, and they deliver local news and service local ads based on that region. The location of the users and the content is known, and monetised.

The Internet, in contrast, is largely ageographic – it has no implicit location – so the sector has attempted to address this by superimposing a layer of geographic topologies. This started with technologies like IP-based location, but now includes GPS, cell tower, and wi-fi-based ‘beacon' technologies, content and language detection, etc. All of these technologies are being exploited to one purpose: make the Internet more location aware.

We witnessed the launch of Yahoo! GeoPlanet last year. How has this service been received?

Yahoo! GeoPlanet is very well received. It is a foundation service: we have a lot to do in the Geo Technologies group, and GeoPlanet is required to make these happen.

The platform uses something called Where on Earth ID (WOEID), a numerical tag that is associated uniquely with a given location; it can be used to obtain geographic co-ordinates but also spatial relationships (e.g., a city is inside a country, has a postal code, is next to another city). This makes it easier for Internet applications and services to identify locales that have different vocabulary and colloquialisms associated with them – think the Big Apple, NYC, New York Cit: all of these spatial monikers relate to the same conceptual geographic entity, identified by a single WOEID.

Yahoo!'s Fire Eagle service was used by Dash navigation last year. What plans do you have in regards to the telematics space?

Fire Eagle is a great example of the seriousness with which Yahoo! addresses user location, and how we view and respect the need for openness, transparency, and privacy on this subject. The whole idea behind Fire Eagle is sharing your location: getting it off an insular application, device, carrier, or network, getting it back under your control (it is, after all, your location, not theirs), and dictating how you'd like to share your location with other services. As a platform, Fire Eagle lets developers easily create location-enhanced applications – maps, driving directions, local weather, traffic, nearby friends, exchange rates, time zones, local radio, public holidays – that consume the user's location from a variety of sources. The benefit for users is that they can update their location just once – say, using a mobile device – and this single update perpetuates to other user-authorised applications, at user-controlled granularities – including Outside.in Radar, Skout, Brightkite, Loki and many more.

Dash itself is a two-way, Internet-connected GPS navigation system offering an innovative solution to sensor-based traffic monitoring. Fire Eagle allowed the location detected by the Dash device to be employed by other applications.

Going forward, Fire Eagle will continue to take a prominent role in how Yahoo! engages with location-aware applications and infrastructures off the Yahoo! network. This includes any application that wants to share user location – not just telematics devices in the traditional sense.

Is it possible to geotag all the content available online? How will your group go about making geotagged information available to mobile users?

We don't want to geotag all of it, just the significant proportion that is about a place or specific to a place, e.g. a pizza parlour in Chicago or a local news item. There are several ways to derive location information. First, a structured address – where a location, such as a store or restaurant, is. This is geocoding plain-and-simple, but doesn't necessarily disseminate location information to the relevant audience, or accommodate content that is not address-based.

We're also seeing a lot of explicit geo markups – mainly microformats in the body of the content, or explicit geotagging in the content header. We always like it when people geotag their data, but can't make the Internet location-aware by relying on users to change their behaviour, so the next frontier is geoparsing and geoenrichment. These are all technologies that we are working with, and developing, in the Geo Technologies group at Yahoo!

One of the key topics at Telematics Detroit 2009 is map updates. How do Yahoo!'s methods of map updates compare to other players in the market, i.e. TomTom, Nokia etc?

Yahoo! uses traditional vendors for map data, just like the bulk of players on the market. When we learn about a new map entity – such as a roundabout or cul-de-sac – we provide this back to the vendor so that everyone can benefit. This is a long round-trip, however.

User contributions to maps are important, and there are many organisations, such as OpenStreetMap and CloudMade that do this very well.

We are not looking to simply duplicate a service that is already available. Yahoo! excels at geoinfomatics – how we use place to inform data and make it geographically relevant.

We want to capture the names of the world's places as they are called by the world's people: what are the colloquial terms in common use that aren't in the atlas or formal gazeteer? What do the local residents call their area?

Our concern here is really named places and how they relate to each other.

Could you give our audience a brief teaser about your session at the Telematics Detroit Conference? What will the attendees learn from your session?

My session is called ‘Geographically Informing the Online Experience'. I will be talking further about what I've been discussing here today, highlighting new technologies that Yahoo! Geo Technologies will be releasing prior to the conference, talking about all of our offerings more holistically and how they work together to the benefit of developers and users across the Internet.

To find out more about Tyler's session at Telematics Detroit 2009, visit http://www.telematicsupdate.com/detroit/conference_index.shtml and download the full event brochure.

Dr Tyler Bell leads the Yahoo! Geo Technologies product team that develops user location, mapping, and geo-informatic technologies at Yahoo! He has spent fifteen years working with the geographic technologies that enrich the Internet and fuel its mobile potential. He is currently developing technologies that geo-enrich the Internet, make the mobile experience entirely location-aware, and drive the openness and accessibility of geographic data and services.


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