Dennis Crowley explains Foursquare's new 'magic trick'

Foursquare used to be all about the check-ins, but now it’s trying to “fake beacons” with all of the data it has collected, according to its CEO Dennis Crowley.

During a question-and-answer session on Product Hunt, a popular website for discovering new startups, Crowley said his company’s big “magic trick” is understanding how phones move in and out of spaces and whether a person is moving or stopped.

Foursquare used to be a check-in app, known for creating digital “mayors” of phyiscal locations. Last year, in a move that Crowley admitted wasn’t communicated well enough, the company split the app in two. Foursquare became a recommendation service that can tell you where to eat dinner. The new app, Swarm, took the check-in features and recently added back the gamification layer of checking in places.

Even with the split, Foursquare still has mountains of data, and it’s working on a way to use it to fake beacons, a technology that would let companies know when you’re in a store and then send you a notification on your phone.

“For years, we’ve been working on tech that basically does what beacons are supposed to do.. but does it without hardware. This is why all of those checkins are valuable (7 billion of them!) — they have give us a map of the world meant to be read by mobile phone sensors… and we’re finding this is a really easy way to ‘fake’ beacon technology,” Crowley wrote.

The hard part is figuring out whether that person is stopped just on a footpath versus in an interesting place that it might be worth sending a notification about, Crowley said. While he likes beacons, they can be hard to convince store owners to use. That’s where the map of data could come in for the company.

“if stopped, are you at a place, on the footpath, in traffic? and if you’re in a place, is it an interesting place (vs, say, a dry cleaners?) and if it’s interesting, what can Foursquare tell you about that place… and is that thing interesting enough for us to warrant us buzzing you phone (or wrist) to tell you about it? This stuff is VERY HARD to do… so hard that there are basically no other companies doing it right now,” Crowley wrote.

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