Foursquare: It’s more than just the check-ins.


Figure 1 [1]

“Keep up and meet up with friends on the go” [2] this is the slogan of Foursquare, a social networking app for smart phones. It enables users to share their location and give opinions on venues they’ve visited. It allows the users to know the locations of their friends so if they happen to be both passing near a coffee shop they can meet up for a coffee.

A convergence of new technologies and social attitudes had to take place for such a creation to have been born. At the end of the dot-com bubble social networking sites such as Friendster were beginning to form [3]. The idea was simple; you collect friends like you collect stamps. It was an addictive idea and they soon became extremely popular, however they were limited in their utility. It would take technologies such as smart phones with GPS and projects such as the OpenStreepMap to open up an environment from which Foursquare could be born. Though it was the earlier sites such as Friendster that created the social conditions for which people would become comfortable with sharing the intimate details of their lives. As Mark Zuckerber has said “The rise of social networking online means that people no longer have an expectation of privacy”. [4]

Foursquare was launched in 2009 by Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai [5]. The idea is similar to an earlier project by Crowley called Dodgeball which was part of his graduate thesis at New York University [6]. Google would later acquire Dodgeball but then decided to discontinue it in 2009. The idea was novel but was severely limited by the technologies available at the time. As there were no GPS enabled phones with anywhere near mass adoption it required users to SMS their location to the service. Internet access on mobile phones at this time was extremely basic with little to no images and slow connections speeds. Because of these limitations the service did not gain the critical mass needed to succeed leading Google to discontinue the service in 2009.

This allowed for Crowley to launch Foursquare with the help of Selvadurai who was an engineering graduate of King’s College London. Selvadurai had worked for Nokia and brought valuable knowledge of the capabilities of the newly appearing smartphones. [7]

Revenue streams for Foursquare come largely through advertising. What makes advertisements on foursquare unique though is that they are location-based. It allows businesses to target users who are nearby their premises. [8]

Recent developments from Foursquare include the Foursquare Time Machine which they have developed with Samsung. This creates an infographic to allow the user to visualise their past checkins, favourite places and movement habits. It also makes predictions on their future movements based on their past data. [9]


Figure 2 [10]

Foursquare has a team of data scientists who apply machine learning techniques to the company’s every expanding datasets [11][12]. When a user checks in to a location such as a restaurant or cafe they leave comments and tips about that place, this information is available to Foursquare to offer recommendations to other users. The data collection doesn’t stop there; the app collects phone’s GPS coordinates, surrounding WiFi network strengths, radio frequency IDs and performs triangulation via distances to nearby mobile phone masts. According to data scientist Blake Shaw the primary goal of the data acquisition is to make their app more useful to the user, “We’ll know that you’ll want coffee in two hours so we can suggest somewhere you can get really good coffee” [13].

The company is beginning to make available their datasets to academics. Data scientists from Foursquare are collaborating with economists to research tipping points and virility behaviour. They are trying to observe if people go to a new venue is there a certain critical point above which behaviour then ripples outwards causing that venue to become successful [14]. Perhaps there could be some really useful research coming out of these collaborations that could be helpful in areas such as traffic management and city planning.

– Keith Walsh

[1] Review Trackers. “How to Claim Your Business on Foursquare”. Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2014)
[2] The Foursquare Blog. Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2014)
[3] Chafkin, Max. “How to Kill a Great Idea!”. Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2014)
[4] Johnson, Bobbie. “Privacy no longer a social norm, says Facebook founder”. Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2014)
[5] Foursquare. “About Foursquare”. Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2014)
[6] New York University. “Dodgeball”. Available at: (Accessed 18 February 2014)
[7] Selvadurai, Naveen. Linkedin profile. Available at: (Accessed 18 February 2014)
[8] Foursquare. “Introducing Foursquare Ads”. Available at: (Accessed 18 February 2014)
[9] Weber, Harrison. “Great Scott! Foursquare’s time machine visualizes your past check-ins and predicts where you’ll go next”. Available at: (Accessed 18 February 2014)
[10] Ungerleider, Neal. “Foursquare debuts time machine”. Available at (Accessed 18 February 2014)
[11] Li, Tianhui. Linkedin profile. Available at: (Accessed 18 February 2014)
[12] Shaw, Blake. Linkedin profile. Available at: (Accessed 18 February 2014)
[13] Datoo, Sirak. “Why data science matters to Foursquare”. Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2014)
[14] Li, Tianhui. “A chat about data science and our fun visualizations”. Available at: (Accessed 18 February 2014)

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