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Intelligent Machines

Now Your App Knows Where You Are

Geolocation analytics could help companies to improve their apps–and make more money from them.

A new platform for analyzing when, where, and how smart-phone apps are used will soon be available to thousands of mobile developers.

Appcelerator–a software development platform that lets Web programmers create apps that run natively on both iPhone and Android devices–will release the new mobile analytics platform within the next three months. The platform was developed by Appcelerator and FortiusOne, a company that specializes in visualizing location information.

Accurate geolocation analytics data will help companies improve their software and make money from location-targeted advertising.

Appcelerator has around 72,000 users, including developers from large businesses such as NBC and Budweiser. It has proven popular because it lets developers create apps without requiring the technical expertise needed to build them from scratch.

The new platform, called Titanium+Geo, lets Appcelerator developers see what users are doing, and where they’re doing it, as long as geolocation functionality has been built into an app. For example, the startup Scoutmob, which offers location-specific deals to subscribers through an Appcelerator app, could see when and where users open the app, and how they respond.

Titanium+Geo collects data every time a user opens an app. A developer can instruct the app to report various events to a remote server, such as when a user views an advertisement–or a coupon for a discount–or when the user responds to the ad or redeems the coupon.

“Most of what we see currently in terms of smart-phone advertising, not much of it is geotargeted,” says Sean Gorman, president and founder of FortiusOne. Without the metrics to determine how well mobile, geotargeted ads work, there simply hasn’t been a business case for using them, he adds.

“We’re used to Google Analytics for Web pages, but until now, we haven’t had that for how apps are used,” says Gorman.

SimpleGeo, another startup company that offers geolocation tools for developers, has announced that it is working on a similar analytics platform.

Adding spatial data to the information that apps already gather will allow for new forms of data mining. Gorman says that researchers have, for example, been able to determine with near-perfect accuracy who the friends of a given smart-phone user are simply by analyzing data about where and when that user comes into contact with others.

Pizza tracking: A spike in coupon redemption at PizzaLand at lunchtime is revealed in San Francisco by FortiusOne and Appcelerator’s Titanium+Geo package.

The approach could also allow for much more targeted advertising. “When you understand when and where [a person is when they use an app], then you understand context,” says Scott Schwarzhoff, vice president of marketing at Appcelerator. “If it’s 7 a.m. and a person is in the marina district, then you understand where that person lives.”

Targeted ads would allow developers to command higher rates for advertising. But this kind of data could also reveal things that users might rather keep secret.

“It’s like Minority Report,” says Byung-Gon Chun, a researcher at Intel Labs Berkeley. “As Tom Cruise walks by the billboards, they change their advertisements based on his presence.”

Chun, who studies mobile security, recently coauthored a paper showing that many Android apps share user data, including location information, without making it clear to users.

Chun and colleagues Jaeyeon Jung at Intel and William Enck at Penn State University developed a program called TaintDroid that examines the data that Android apps pass to the Web. Half of the apps they analyzed transmitted geolocation data, most without asking for permission or making it explicit in their documentation that they would.

“Even if this disclosure is in the [end user license agreement], it’s hard for users to figure out what kind of information the app is actually sending,” says Chun.

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