Twitter's Next Project: Location

Twitter has already built a great service to track what people are saying in real-time. But knowing where they’re saying it could be even more valuable. So as Twitter continues to build out its product, adding location data to tweets will be an important move.

The good news is that Twitter seems to be moving in that direction. For instance, the company has recently hired a new member for its platform team with a background in location services: Ryan Sarver, who most recently worked at Boston-based Skyhook Wireless. That’s the company whose wi-fi-based location service powers Apple’s iPod touch and helps out on the iPhone, among other gadgets.

And at a recent conference, Twitter’s API lead Alex Payne reportedly said the company “would make other changes to support search, including adding location based info to each Tweet.” So it seems geotagging tweets is an area the company will be investing in sooner than later.

There is already some location information attached to each tweet — via the “location” field that’s attached to your Twitter profile. Right now, that data can be used in an advanced Twitter search, or for developers, via a call to Twitter’s search API. But in most cases, that’s something you’ve entered by hand, and is very broad: “New York, NY” or “Paris, France.” And sometimes, it’s useless. My Twitter location is “NYC via Chicago,” which is how I choose to describe myself. But that’s not going to help Twitter much.

To make location more useful within Twitter, it’s probably going to have to actually get your real-time location — or an approximation — for each tweet.

That will be relatively easy to do on mobile phones with GPS or other location features, such as Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone or Google (GOOG) Android-powered devices. Today, iPhone apps like Tweetie and Twitterfon can already get your location. And the next version of MobileSafari will also be able to tap into the GPS.

But on older phones, or via text messaging, Twitter may have to figure something else out. One option could be making deals with mobile carriers to get approximate coordinates for your location, but we’re not sure if carriers would want to offer that information for free.

Meanwhile, on a desktop or computer, it’s also tricky, but not impossible. For instance, there are ways to figure out roughly where you are over the network. Major League Baseball uses a technology they patented to figure out where your computer is — to decide if you’re allowed to stream live baseball games online, or if you’re in a local-TV blackout area. Other technologies exist, such Skyhook’s Loki, and if Twitter (or popular desktop apps like TweetDeck) can figure out a way to get more people to install it, it might just work.

What’s the point? Besides making Twitter more interesting to users — get a glimpse of nearby tweets, see which friends are in the neighbourhood, etc. — it might also become more powerful for corporations, which Twitter will try to recruit as paying members later this year.

For instance: Filter only nearby tweets about local businesses, see what people in Denver are saying about Sprint or Verizon service, or see if different parts of the country like a certain TV show or music artist more than others. And if Twitter ever hopes for a future in local advertising, knowing someone’s location will be especially important.

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