Foursquare’s Pilgrim SDK could lead to an explosion of location-aware apps

Foursquare, which launched in 2009, was once a high-flying startup that some predicted could be the next Twitter or even Facebook. 

By any measure, the company hasn’t become the next Twitter or Facebook, but these days it isn’t trying to be. Instead, Foursquare bills itself as a “location intelligence company” and is on its way to building a profitable business by selling data to other companies and developers.

Two weeks ago, Foursquare announced what could be the most important component of its data business: the Pilgrim SDK.

Based on proprietary data, the more than 11 billion check-ins registered through the Foursquare app over the years and machine learning technology, Foursquare co-founder and executive chairman Dennis Crowley says that the Pilgrim is “the crown jewel of our technology at Foursquare.”

The next generation of GPS

So what does it do? As FastCompany’s John Paul Titlow explained, the Pilgrim SDK “essentially lets Foursquare and its partners understand where people go in the real world and how the map looks in the eyes of the sensor-laden computers sitting in all of our pockets.”

“In essence, Pilgrim aims to be the next generation of GPS for mobile development.”

According to Crowley, the Pilgrim SDK will allow companies to add location awareness to apps in ways that have not been possible before.

“No one has built this engine that runs in the background that can tell the app to wake up and do something when the person walks into a bakery or the person walks into the gym. That has been missing from the whole mobile development landscape,” he stated.

Using the Pilgrim SDK, companies will be able to detect when the users of their apps are near or stop at particular venues, “even dense locations.” Foursquare’s database includes more than 93 billion places, eliminating the need for companies to rely on beacons and geofences.

The database also contains Place Shapes for those 90 million places, allowing the Pilgrim SDK to pinpoint businesses that are located directly next to each other or that share a larger space.

This, perhaps, will be one of Pilgrim’s strongest selling points. In simplest terms, it means that marketers will be able to target users very, very accurately. For example, a marketer could deliver a special promotion to a user when she is in the vicinity of a particular business or type of business, or to notify a user of businesses she might be interested in while visiting a new city.

What’s more, Pilgrim is capable of identifying users’ home and work locations, and companies building on top of the Pilgrim SDK will be able to segment their audiences based on where their users go. Those companies can even compare their users’ visits with a Foursquare panel “to gain a better understanding of behavioral trends.”

A new wave of location-based marketing

The analytics appeal for this is significant, and it could theoretically give marketers the ability to target users of their apps with greater context.

For example, a marketer could identify users who frequently visit health and fitness venues and deliver on-the-go promotions to them that are tailored to their particular lifestyle and tastes.

Initially, Foursquare is partnering with a small number of companies, such as couponing app developer SnipSnap, which is using the Pilgrim SDK to determine when its app should deliver push notifications to users.

In the coming months, Foursquare will make the Pilgrim SDK available to more companies, and as it does so, it could usher in a new wave of location-intelligent apps that make life easier for consumers and create new commercial opportunities for businesses to capitalize on the ubiquity of mobile phones.

If that happens, either through the Pilgrim SDK or competing technologies, marketers that embrace location intelligence will be in a better position to deliver the right messages at the right times to the right people, putting those that aren’t using rich location data to target in a much weaker position.

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