A large monitor on a wall at Foursquare’s headquarters in New York displays graphs representing foot traffic to nearby bars, restaurants, and offices. The info, which rises in colorful hills like a topographic map, comes from check-ins and radio signals gathered from the company’s two apps, Swarm and Foursquare City Guide. Cofounder and executive chairman Dennis Crowley calls this real-time location data “the secret sauce that makes us special.”
Foursquare’s business directives have changed over time, but check-ins are still a key part of its DNA. Your clicking the check-in button is still important, but for different reasons. The company has evolved beyond being a social media app broadcasting your friends’ favorite sandwich shop to become a bonafide location data firm that sells its rich dataset to anyone seeking fine-grained information about how people spend their time and money.
And that makes the check-in essential. Every day, Foursquare users check into as many as 8 million locations—that’s 12 billion in all over the past nine years—and Crowley wants that number to grow. “We recognize that our data is only as fresh as the people who are creating it,” he says. To encourage Swarm users keep exploring and checking into new places, Crowley and his team needed to do what every social media app does when things stagnate: appeal to the desires of its fickle user base.
This week, the company is pushing an update to Swarm that doubles down what Foursquare calls “lifelogging” features. Gone are the games and inbox tabs. Instead of focusing on where your friends are and what they’re doing, the updated app privileges the archive of where you’ve been and what you’ve done. Given that the median Swarm user has just six friends on the app, the new focus on self-documentation makes sense. “We decided to just embrace this thing that sets us apart,” Crowley says.
The company placed the categories feature—which tracks the types of businesses you’ve frequented—front and center as a constant reminder of how many places you’ve yet to visit. The idea, Crowley says, is to streamline the app so that users can check in and browse their location history faster and more easily.
The upshot? An app more narrowly focused on highlighting new destinations and encouraging check-ins makes it easier for Foursquare to collect location data. Every time someone checks into a business, Foursquare uses that data to refine its geofence, showing when and where people come and go. In turn, the data associated with it becomes more valuable.
Foursquare augments check-in data with ambient information pulled from your phone’s GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GMS radio signals, so even if you don’t hit “check-in,” the app still has a sense of where you’ve been and how long you’ve been there. Foursquare sells this anonymized and aggregated information to companies like Snapchat and Twitter, which want to target ads and build out their own location-based features.
Crowley doesn’t shy away from the fact that Foursquare’s apps have become something of a conduit to more efficiently gather location data. “The products generate a tremendous amount of data around what’s new, interesting, and relevant in the world,” he says. “There’s a lot of value in that.” Value for the user who gets to learn, in a click, about the cool new restaurant down the street, and for the advertisers who want to sell you stuff the moment you walk in.
Correction on 8/9/2017: This story has been updated to accurately reflect Foursquare’s total number of daily check-ins.