Foursquare is using South by Southwest (SXSW) to test out something new—just like it did a decade ago with the original app.
This week during SXSW in Austin, Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley elaborated on company’s week-long demo of “Hypertrending,” a feature within the FourSquare and Swarm apps that shows real-time visualizations of the area’s most crowded—and least crowded—locations.
Rather than tracking locations all the time like some apps, Hypertrending will only track foot traffic in and out of locations like bars, coffee shops, restaurants and venues, focusing on the visit rather than the visitor. According Crowley, the feature could have a wide range of uses ranging from finding the most popular spots of the moment to (eventually) AI giving descriptions of locations as users pass by.
As of now, the feature will only be available during SXSW, while the Texas town is flooded with techies and tourists—but that’s only because Crowley wants to gather feedback from users on the ground before rolling it out, he explained.
“I feel like I’ve been on this stage at SXSW before about Foursquare [doing] all these magic tricks with data,” he said on stage on Saturday. “And this is like the magician showing all the magic tricks.”
Hypertrending uses Pilgrim, a tool in development for five years that gathers first-party data from phones collected by FourSquare. The effort is partially intended to help attendees plan their SXSW time, but it’s also meant to increase transparency by showing what companies see on the backend of location-tracking apps.
“My hope and thought and intent is to be able to show people … what a lot of companies can do,” he said. “Let’s give the data back to people so they can do something with it.”
Crowley acknowledged the bigger question surrounding the broader tech world when it comes to location-tracking and other types of data collection: Is a feature like hypertrending creepy to users?
Part of the reason behind tracking location data is because checking in and out of places can be a “pain in the ass” for users to remember to do even when they want to, Crowley said. However, it’s also to create a map of the world that lives outside of companies like Google and Facebook, which constantly track their own users’ location when the feature is on—but keep that information to themselves. Foursquare, meanwhile, is partnering with companies ranging from Twitter and Snap to Uber and Samsung through Foursquare’s Places API. (The API isn’t used for Hypertrending, which instead uses data from undisclosed third parties.)
When asked if hypertrending is too “creepy,” only about 10 percent of the audience raised their hands—but a sizably larger number said they thought the feature was acceptable or even “cool.”
While the SXSW uses are, arguably, more fun in nature, Crowley said the feature could also be used by urban planners, retail companies or even relief workers during disaster recovery.
“That map I showed you is fun for running to the next party,” he said. “But maybe, it’s useful for digging people out of the next earthquake.”