Learning from Location

By Laura Adler • March 24, 2016

  • March 24, 2016
  • GIS

More than two-thirds of Americans own smartphones, creating a powerful new opportunity for governments to communicate with their citizens. One of the most important functions of the smartphone is largely invisible: while we use apps or share messages on social media, our phones are using GPS to encode this data with location information.

Collectively, these mobile devices create a citywide sensing network, producing a rich layer of location data. Cities can make use of this information to learn about issues, push notifications to relevant residents, and provide access to goods and services within a given area.

Location has a critical role to play in enhancing all city services, from crime prevention to pest control.

Location has a critical role to play in enhancing all city services, from crime prevention to pest control. The technologies involved range from the cutting-edge to the basic, from social media to the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that cities have used for decades. This article provides an overview of these diverse applications, highlighting commonalities and challenges across different approaches to maximizing the value of location.

Leveraging Social Media to Fight Crime, Potholes, and Health Code Violations

Social media is one of the richest sources of location data. Every day, millions of users post information to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, creating a vast new pool of public information that can help cities improve service. Collecting and analyzing this information poses a challenge for cities: most local governments lack expertise in social media and analytics. But a number of new partners have emerged to help public officials learn from the social media content produced in their jurisdictions.

In Huntington Beach, CA, the police department has started to monitor real-time social media activity with the help of Geofeedia, a platform for analyzing location data from social media. Huntington Beach deals with an increase in public safety issues during the US Open for Surfing, which draws roughly 500,000 visitors to the city every year. With a police force of just over 200 officers, the city has limited resources to proactively patrol for offenses. In order to better anticipate where issues might occur, the city partnered with Geofeedia to monitor real-time social media activity. The police department targets keywords such as “gun,” “fight,” or “shoot,” and uses these to identify where trouble might start. If they anticipate a problem, they can deploy officers or contact on-site security at the location. They take advantage of another location-based technology to monitor social media activity specifically in locations of interest. The program is also used for investigative purposes. With social media information, the police can backtrack to build a better picture of the events that took place, identify the suspects, and build cases.

Geofeedia is one of a number of firms that help cities use social media to fight crime. The police force in Racine, Wisconsin, is using a licensed service, SnapTrends, to monitor social media activity within the city. In one case, the program helped the police identify and track a murder suspect based on his posts to Facebook.

Cities are also using location data from social media to address more quotidian issues. In Chicago, the city monitors social media for a variety of keywords to understand public sentiment around city services and engage with city agencies to follow up. If they note an increase in use of the term “pothole,” for instance, they send the relevant geotagged posts to the Department of Transportation for investigation.

The social media platform Yelp has been of particular use to cities, tying information about restaurant conditions to the location of the business. New York City analyzes the language patterns used in Yelp reviews to identify potential violations of the health code. Health inspectors are then sent out to locations with a higher risk of violation, making more efficient use of these limited resources. A similar program is underway in Boston, with the help of startup DrivenData.

Running in the Background

Some cities are collecting location data using apps that are passive, running in the background to collect information on a specific issue. One of the most successful versions of this approach is a Boston city app called Street Bump that residents can install on their phones. The app collects vibration data to identify patterns associated with potholes. The phone geotags possible potholes and uploads these sites to an aggregation system. The new application, developed for approximately $80,000, replaces the historical system used in Boston: dragging chains behind trucks for an estimated $200,000 per year.

In the realm of public health, Louisville is gaining a better understanding of where air pollutants are a problem through their AIR Louisville partnership. The city distributes inhalers to residents with asthma, which are embedded with GPS and sensors to monitor when and where the inhaler is used. The program is used to support individual health monitoring for the program’s participants, but anonymized data also creates a map of asthma incidents in the city, pointing officials to areas where air pollution is particularly intense.

Citizen Reporting

Perhaps the most widely-adopted use of location services is in the many applications developed to allow citizens to report non-emergency issues to local government officials. Since the first 311 system was implemented in Baltimore, Maryland in 1996, cities across the country have committed to ensuring that citizens have a direct line to government for non-emergency questions, feedback, and service requests. Such systems have helped government shift towards a focus on customer service.

With diffusion of mobile computing, these services began to move online. The company SeeClickFix, founded in 2008, allows community members to submit complaints or service requests to their local government, such as potholes or waste in need of removal. In addition to a statement of the issue, their entries include GPS location information and photographs.

Since then, cities across the US have developed their own applications to collect and follow up on requests from citizens. To name just a few, Boston has developed an award-winning application, Citizens Connect (now BOS:311), which government workers use to collect and track requests; New York City launched a mobile application for 311 in 2013; and in 2015 Salt Lake City developed SLC Mobile.

Location-Based Services: Building on GIS with kiosks and geofencing

Cities have long made use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for internal purposes. As citizens start to use mobile phones to access city information, GIS has become central to delivering accurate and relevant data to citizens on the move. By layering the user’s location over basic geographical information—about parks, transportation, or political districts—these services provide users with location-specific answers.

Governments from Tennessee to New York City have used this approach to develop custom transportation applications, giving users location-specific directions across multiple modes of transit that reflect current road and public transportation conditions. Elsewhere, location-based services are providing information about important public resources: in Vermont, residents can use OhRanger to find a nearby park, while the Find Your Legislator app uses location or address information to inform citizens of their elected representatives.

In many cities, kiosks and other street infrastructure are being implemented to provide access to information about the immediately surrounding area. New York City’s new payphone replacements, LinkNYC, will deliver relevant local information about city services, as well as display advertisements based on the location. In Kansas City, MO, the new streetcar corridor will feature 25 kiosks with information about the surrounding area, including amenities and information about local history.

In Warsaw, street infrastructure is being used to provide location information to the visually impaired. The Virtual Warsaw program, a winner of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2014 European Mayors Challenge, uses street “beacons” that connect to smartphones, sharing critical information about navigation, such as transportation locations and ticket requirements, as well as information about cultural sites.

Geofencing builds on GIS to help cities target emergency notifications. In a recent incident, a building fire in San Francisco posed a threat to surrounding buildings and caused extensive traffic congestion in the area. The city used geofencing to send mobile notifications, via AlertSF, to people in the affected areas.

Similar geofencing technologies are also being used to support regulatory enforcement, as ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft gain access to airports that were once reserved for traditional taxis. In recent months, Los Angeles International Airport authorized Lyft and Uber to pick up customers within the airport. In order to ensure safety, reduce congestion, and increase accountability, Lyft and Uber drivers are required to await a request in a dedicated lot, and the application must route all requests only to drivers in the correct location. Lyft and Uber have implemented a geofence to contain all requests to the permitted area.


Leveraging location has the potential to touch every dimension of urban government—from emergency response to public health, and from policing to disability services. Privacy remains a major concern: even when data has been anonymized, MIT researchers found that they could identify 95% of individuals given only four approximates times and places. Such powerful data, in the palm of your hand, offers cities the opportunity to vastly improve the delivery of existing services, and expand the scope of public engagement.

About the Author

Laura Adler

Laura Adler is a PhD student in Sociology at Harvard. She received a Bachelors from Yale University and a Masters in City Planning from the University of California, Berkeley. Laura's research interests include urban planning and social policy in the US and abroad, with recent academic work focused on the relationship between urban governance and technology. Prior to beginning graduate study at Harvard, Laura worked for the City of New York's Department of Information Technology, where she focused on long-term technology strategy in support of the city's operations and expanding broadband access for New York City residents.