How Foursquare's "Venue Project" is Expanding Its Platform Strategy

Daniel Luxemburg
Mar. 22 2011, 12:00PM EDT

Foursquare, the leading location-based social tool, announced a major new initiative last week to expand its location database to include cross-references to corresponding venue listings from other services. As characterized in the announcement post on the company blog, the goal is to make Foursquare the missing "Rosetta Stone for location, allowing you to link information about a real-world place from one database to any other." Now it's not just about using Foursquare, but connecting it to other services.

Foursquare's initial set of partners includes The New York Times, New York Magazine, Thrillist, and MenuPages (betraying a bit about the company's east coast origins). Now, developers can find venues through the Foursquare API with the unique identifier code used by these other sites, generally part of the URL for the corresponding venue page. Similarly, Foursquare venues can now be queried for known representation on these sites, returning a list of IDs and links for sites where that venue appears.

Of this first bunch, only The Times has developer APIs of its own, and none of those are for retrieving venue or location information. So for now the only structured data this new feature adds to Foursquare venues is the cross-reference itself—there's no straightforward way to extract much more information from these particular partner sites beyond the link to their listing page.

It doesn't seem likely that things will stay this way though. There are plenty of sites that deal with location, have their own APIs, and stand to benefit from having their index of places harmonized with Foursquare's. And then, of course, there may be enterprising mash-up builders who work out ways to extract information directly from linked pages, even if they are intended for browser display and not application parsing. However it happens, lining up Foursquare venues with additional sources of usable information about those places will provide all sorts of new opportunities for innovative applications that combine data from multiple sources.

But this isn't all Foursquare has been up to. This announcement was only the last in a series just before and during the SWSXi conference in Austin, where Foursquare has launched only two years previously. In the days before the conference, the company released version 3.0 of its official mobile client applications for iPhone and Android, including new features for discovering destinations and an overhauled "leaderboard" of a user's behavior compared to his or her friends. That was followed a day later by a new and simpler interface for venue owners to add Foursquare-based special offers, as well as several new types of specials—short terms "flash" specials, specials requiring a group of friends to check in together, "newbie" specials for first-time visitors, and others.

Sxsw2011 platformer

Unlike these other feature or version releases, the "Venues Project," as the harmonization initiative is referred to in the API documentation, is mainly of interest to developers rather than end users. New mobile applications matter to any user of the service and new tools for offering customer incentives to any of its potential partner businesses. Plans to become the Rosetta Stone of location only matter to those concerned with the Foursquare platform.

But that's not an audience Foursquare is in the habit of ignoring, and not one it thinks is necessarily restricted to active developers. For example, among the special badges available during SWSXi this year was the "Platformer" badge (pictured) with the congratulatory message "There's a good chance you don't even know how you unlocked this badge, but you got it for OAuth'ing and using three Apps built on the foursquare API." The limited-time badge was awarded for checking-in to Foursquare using three different third-party applications while in Austin during SWSXi. Right after rolling out its own updated client applications, Foursquare started giving out a badge for not using them in favor of trying out someone else's app. That's not just a nod to veteran users who might be rotating between multiple Foursquare clients, it's an encouragement to everyone to try out new ones. Application makers also benefit, at least a bit, from that added push from Foursquare to get users trying new ways to check-in.

Foursquare even has an official, technical category for users that fit the profile of being invested in the platform even if not necessarily building things with it, and they play a significant role in the emerging Venues Project as well. Users who check-in enough can become official "superusers," which comes with the power to help maintain Foursquare's database of venues by editing and deleting venues and merging duplicate ones. During SWSXi, Foursquare held a superuser-only event in Austin (with attendance by out-of-town superusers through online chat) for "our first-ever, worldwide SU merge-a-thon."

The Venues Project requires that Foursquare maintain a high-quality database of locations—no one is going to want to "harmonize" with a list full of duplicates, fakes, and incorrect listings. In turning to their population of superusers to help achieve this, Foursquare is cashing in on a lot of effort of build enthusiasm for the service. In our coverage of Foursquare's first hackathon last month, we noted that Foursquare was building a strong identity and community around its platform as well as attracting interested developers. That support will be critical for making Foursquare's Venue Project work. As the developer page puts it, "We're calling it a Project for a reason. We want this to be collaborative." Playing to the SWSXi-type crowd might be a narrow focus if the goal is to grow a user base, but if the goal is to recruit an army of volunteer social location information contributors and editors it's a pretty clever tactic.

Foursquare does nothing to discourage the idea that helping improve its location database is a meaningful calling. The blog post announcing the Venues Project concludes:

So, after a long week of launches, I hope this helps you understand our vision: to create a powerful platform for users of any application that helps share and find experiences in the real world and, also, to build a foundation for any location-based service to use the easiest and most comprehensive database of the real world in history. With over fifteen million venues, a generous API, and the start of harmonization, we’re working towards that goal. We can’t wait to see the next wave of start-ups whose vision is that much easier to reach because of this foundational work.

Being the location database backend for "the next wave of start-ups" would certainly cement Foursquare's leadership among location-based services. Then again, Foursquare itself is a pretty recent-wave start-up, and bigger players like Facebook and Google have sizable venue lists of their own. The Venues Project will really start to heat up once "harmonization" with competitors appears on the agenda.

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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