Foursquare Hackathon Builds On Platform's Momentum

Daniel Luxemburg
Feb. 22 2011, 05:00PM EST

The popular location-based social service Foursquare hosted its first hackathon on saturday at the tech incubator General Assembly in New York City. The event attracted over a hundred developers who used the Foursquare API to produce almost 40 apps to show off and enter into competition.

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The event comes on the heels of a lot of activity around the Foursquare platform. Back in December Foursquare launched version 2 of its API. Since then, the service itself has added new features, such as attaching comments and photos to check-ins. The developer tools have kept pace, with Foursquare exposing new API endpoints for new functionality as it has been added.

Foursquare cofounder Naveen Selvadurai confirmed that last weekend's gathering was intended to help keep up the recent momentum and enthusiasm around Foursquare's platform. He even indicated that more new capabilities—again, both for end users and developers—might be unveiled next month around the time of the SWSXi conference, which will also mark the service's second birthday.

Given the amount of attention Foursquare has gotten it's hard to remember that the company is still young, even by web standards. By the time Foursquare came on the scene, exposing an API and encouraging the growth of a developer community was standard practice. So it should be no surprise that Foursquare has done so almost from the very start.

While kicking off the hackathon, Selvadurai recounted that within a few weeks of Foursquare's initial iPhone-only launch, envious Android users reverse-engineered the young company's internal API to build their own client application. The episode pushed Foursquare to launch its API publicly after just a couple of months by opening up the same one it was using for its own client application.

And that attitude has persisted since. All of Foursquare's official client applications use the same API exposed to outside developers, who have access to all the methods the company's own engineers do.

An interesting result of this is that the published API reflects input from several directions. Selvadurai described the evolution of the API as based about one third each on feedback from the developer community, the needs of Foursquare's own internal developers, and a "gut feeling" about how to build a great API.

And based on the turnout on Saturday, it looks like the effort is paying off. The hackathon produced a great diversity of applications, demonstrating that there is plenty of room for third-party developers to continue innovating. Just as importantly though, common threads that ran through the entries demonstrated that Foursquare is also building a strong brand and culture around itself.

While some projects connected Foursquare to another service or leveraged part of it for a new purpose, the day's most popular projects focused the same things Foursquare itself does, and not the gaming elements like badges and mayorships. The top three according to the "people's choice" vote for best hack were:

1) Moonwalk, "a real-time information exchange which allows you to communicate with people checked-in at certain venues" designed to provide more timely and personal information about places than can be offered by a traditional reviews site.

2) Agora, which takes advantage of linked accounts to "use your Foursquare checkins to introduce you in real-time with people you have common interests using your Twitter graph".

3) Tips Sentiment, an ambitious language processing tool to rate nearby locations based an automated processing of the Foursquare tips other uses have left.

All of these are focused on providing better social context for and communication around the places one visits and the people one meets there, a lot like Foursquare itself tries to.

And among the range of other entries were ones like 4squareand7yearsago application, which sends users daily emails reminding them of their checkins one year prior, and also makes very effective use of Foursquare's now recognizable design style.

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Similarly, Fourgraph, which creates personalized infographics based on a user's checkin history, very deliberately mimics the appearance of a recent graphic from Foursquare illustrating its 2010 growth.

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Between the enthusiasm for applications that most align with Foursquare's core ethos and the care taken by some to fit the service's aesthetic, the apps at the first Foursquare hackathon demonstrated that the company hasn't just attracted a big pool of developers (2000 on the mailing list), but established a strong identity for itself and for that community.

Event photo from the Foursquare HQ Flicker feed.

Daniel Luxemburg I'm Daniel and I'm a web developer and social media consultant based in Brooklyn with a particular interest in how open APIs are making it easier to innovate on the web. I started contributing to ProgrammableWeb in November '10.

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