The last Product Management blog entry focused on the latest Features released this summer, and hinted at upcoming developments around “Location”. Here’s a sneak peek on what’s coming up from ScreenScape’s labs, in the first of several blog entries around ScreenScape and the “Location” topic.

Why so serious about Location?

FourSquare, Gowalla, Loopt, Twitter, and Facebook Places are at the top of a list of “location enabled” products and technologies that are taking the mobile world by storm. ScreenScape is putting venue networking at the forefront of these location based trends.

We strongly believe that the “missing link” in targeted Location Based Media is the on-site physical screen – in other words, connected digital signage.

If mobile media adapts based on the location of its users, shouldn’t the local media also adapt based on who’s there?

As many before us have pointed out, the possibilities and implications presented this shift in Location Based Media and “digital signage” are endless. On the question of Location and venue networking, it’s incumbent on ScreenScape to build tools that constantly put Location awareness front and centre for our members.

This is the first of several posts about Location related features.

Garbage in, garbage out.

ScreenScape and Location, part 1 of 3

For location based media, there are few things more important than accurate location data. Seems obvious, no? But the truth is it’s hard to get it exactly right. Inconsistent or incompatible data on this single critical front can mean a slow, painful death down the road when data volume kicks in. Nothing else works quite right if you can’t rely on your data.

Who controls your data? Your users.

Mobile-based apps have the luxury of collecting location data directly from the device, but browser-based apps need to collect it from the user. Among other things this means you need an accurate, consistent and engaging way for your users to take the time to confirm their location. ScreenScape’s soon-to-be-released user interface for entering the location of screen displays hits all of these 3 points.

NYC = New York City?

One of the more persistent ‘old school’ problems with entering addresses centres around keeping your data clean. More simply: “people call the same thing different names”, and that can cause challenges when you’re trying to help them find each other’s stuff.

For example, ScreenScape’s home province of PEI Canada could be variously and accurately described as ‘PE’, ‘PEI’, ‘P.E.I.’ and ‘Prince Edward Island’. Ask someone to enter a province name and anyone of these variants is technically correct; but if you allow all four they present a problem down the line. Problems like, when someone does a search on ‘PEI’ (what the locals call it), your system needs some way of knowing that ‘PEI’ is also ‘PE’ (what the post office calls it), is also ‘P.E.I.’, etc. Otherwise you’ll end up showing that user only some (or none!) of the matching locations actually on PEI, depending on the random habits of your current users.

Make it interesting, make it fun

When your list is something finite, say ‘Days of the Week’, the problem is trivial. When your list is something huge, like ‘Places’, you’ve got a different animal.

A good solution needs to solve this problem without becoming a pain to its users. If the user enters ‘NYC’, the system should know enough to find it and match it to ‘New York City’. It should do it automatically and do its best not to force them to guess the “acceptable” ways to describe the Big Apple.

There are several well established ways of addressing this problem, but most of them are at best slightly annoying, and at worst result in incomplete or inaccurate data. For example: Ask me for City, then show me a loooong list of every possible City I might be thinking of, and make me choose the closest match.

A better solution is the “look ahead” approach, where you take a half typed answer and make suggestions to the user based on educated guesses. Your suggestions come from your database of existing entries, so you can encourage the user to input standardized answers.

An improvement – but it’s resource intense, not exactly fun, and unless you’re blessed with a LOT of background data it’s very easy to get the “educated guess” part wrong.

A good solution makes it seamless and fun for the user. Users may even linger for a few extra moments, just because they like the way it works.

For a lean running startup concerned with speed-to-market and costs, a great solution makes it fun and makes the most of shared Web resources to make the magic happen.

A picture is worth a thousand words

We opted to meet the challenge with a simple mash-up that uses a single field to collect and return normalized addresses. It’s probably not unique in the world, but we dreamed it up from scratch and we’re kinda proud of it. It makes use of the Google Maps API, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a mapping system more pervasive than Google Maps. They’re our back up for the “educated guess” part – nobody does it better. Kudos to the Google team for a great product and a very solid API.

I love this UI because it encourages exploration and play. For minimum input, I get a lot of cool output. Its fun to just drag and drop the screen around a familiar neighbourhood and see what addresses come out. And it is *awesome* at resolving vague search terms like ‘PEI’, to something data consistent like ‘PE’. It makes data entry and the visualization of its results a dream.

For example, enter something vague like “133 queen PEI” and press Locate. You’ll immediately get a map showing you the precise ScreenScape HQ location on a map, and a complete and normalized data set on its address: “133 Queen St, Charlottetown, PE, Canada”. No giant drop-downs of all the possibilities in the world for City, Province and Country; no spelling errors; no complex logic to invalidate illogical combinations. And ScreenScape gets the data it needs: accurate latitudes and longitudes vetted by the people who know their own location the best.

Just a simple drag and drop interface, a pretty picture that shows data rich results, and users who are encouraged to enter precise data. Nice!

If you’d like to try this UI out, take a free Test Drive of the ScreenScape app, and go to My Profile Location.

Editor’s note: All location data derived from use of the Google Maps API is publicly available on ScreenScape’s free Member Directory.