Ambient Location and the Future of the Interface: SXSW Keynote with real implications for Nonprofits

March 12, 2012       Amy Sample Ward      

"We are all cyborgs. The minute you look at a screen, you are in a symbiotic relationship with technology." This is how Amber Case opened her 2012 South by Southwest Interactive keynote talk on Sunday, March 13th. Case, and her partner Aaron Parecki, launched Geoloqui, a location-based platform, in 2011. Her talk combined an anthropologic overview of the ways humans and technology have operated together over the last few decades with glimpses of the future through tools like Geoloqui.

Case outlined some of the core shifts in tools that she sees as curious developments that may lead us to a more integrated relationship with data and information. The first being that unlike other tools that have changed very little in form or function for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, like a hammer for example, the computer is entirely unstable. It changes shape, size, weight – the computing power decades ago that took a man to the moon is now held inside a smart phone. Further, we used to create a button on a machine that was tied to wires and ultimately to another end point, letting us create a response. Now, we can create a button and change the end reaction and everything else about it online without creating anything permanent in the process.

Additionally, devices are larger on the inside than they are on the outside. Thinking of the other kinds of tools we use and create, this is certainly a reversal. Case used the example of the room we were sitting in listening to hear speak. There were, as it was a keynote, many people in the room stretching up into bleachers. Because most everyone had a smart phone, though, there was actually an exponential amount of people in the room that any of us could have instantly brought into the conversation at any moment through our devices. Similarly, the amount of photos we have stored on our phone or our computer has no correlation to the side of our room, the amount of drawers or cabinets or even photo albums we could fit them in.

According to Case, when it comes to applications like Geoloqui, individuals are able to create an ecosystem around themselves that can actually help them live their life, do their work, and even just experience the world more fully. For example, Case and Parecki put the Trimet bus data (public transport in Portland, Ore.), into Geoloqui enabling the data to recognize when you were near, and present itself to you: whenever you walk up to the bus stop, it sends you a message of when the next bus is coming. "The interface disappears. Actions are reduced as a human." Case suggests that this process means you don’t have to ask questions to your device or even know if a specific application exists, know where to access information, or even be sure you have the right applications open when you need them.

The exciting potential for nonprofit organizations and service providers comes when information that is vital to individuals can present itself and access points for support directly to the individual without he or she knowing they need something, where to get it, or even how to ask for what they may not fully understand. Imagine your organization provides critical health checks to communities especially at risk for certain cancers. You could share the data about your hours, any costs or forms needed, locations, and the demographics or other information of the audiences most targeted. Providing that set of data to something like Geoloqui could mean that when individuals who meet those criteria walk within a given distance of a health center are notified about how they can access the potentially life-saving services nearby.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the next steps and growth from Case and Parecki, especially as they focus on ensuring that all of us have glimpses into the future where they live and work, and slowly try to bring us forward with them.