Twitter is jumping on the geolocation bandwagon, with plans to let users geocode their posts and make the information accessible both on the main Twitter site and through external applications.
Initially, Twitter will release to its external developers a preview of a new geolocation API (application programming interface), which will let developers attach geographic metadata to "tweets," the company announced Thursday in a blog post.
"Developers will have access to this new geolocation feature early which means it will most likely be available on your app of choice before it's available on Twitter's web site. Later, we'll add it to our mobile web site and Twitter.com as well," wrote Twitter cofounder Biz Stone.
Until now, location information has been available to external developers, but via a "rudimentary" API that uses the location information Twitter users add to their profile. "Since anything can be written in this field, it's interesting but not very dependable," Stone wrote.
When the new geolocation functionality is implemented, end-users in all cases will have to opt in to append latitude and longitude coordinates to their posts.
"If people do opt-in to sharing location on a tweet-by-tweet basis, compelling context will be added to each burst of information," Stone wrote. "For example, with accurate, tweet-level location data you could switch from reading the tweets of accounts you follow to reading tweets from anyone in your neighborhood or city -- whether you follow them or not. It's easy to imagine how this might be interesting at an event like a concert or even something more dramatic like an earthquake."
The geolocation functionality will allow developers to deliver "more meaningful and localized experiences" to their applications' users, wrote Ryan Sarver, a member of the Twitter application platform support team, in a discussion forum for Twitter developers.
"We are also really excited about a unique facet of this release in that it will be API-only initially. This means that Twitter.com won't surface the functionality and we look forward to seeing the new and interesting experiences that will grow out of the ecosystem," Sarver wrote on Thursday.
Developers can expect to soon see a "Geolocation Best Practices" guide from Twitter that will address key geolocation API topics like security and privacy.
"The guide will create a framework from which we can address the challenges that come about when dealing with something as sensitive as someone's location while hopefully allowing everyone enough creative freedom to create their own experiences around it. It is important to note that the feature is going to be strictly opt-in. It will be disabled until a user chooses to switch it on," Sarver wrote.
There is no specific date set yet for the official release of the geolocation API.
Geolocation adds a valuable space dimension to Twitter, whose main attractiveness until now has been the real-time nature of its communications, said Gartner analyst Ray Valdes.
Even without geolocation functionality, Twitter is often used by people to broadcast where they are to their friends, such as when someone is headed to a bar and invites acquaintances nearby to join them, he said.
"This highlights a use case that has already been in play for some time, so it's a positive move on Twitter's part. It has a lot of potential," Valdes said.
Releasing the API first to developers gives them a big opportunity to capitalize on the possibilities of geolocation in Twitter, Valdes said.
"It will be up to developers to take advantage of this and use it in a responsible way that users can then learn about," he said.
It appears that Twitter's management has given geolocation issues such as privacy and security careful thought, as indicated by their plan to release a best-practices guide to developers, Valdes said.
"That doesn't mean there won't be any mistakes made. It's going to be a learning process, but the good news is that they are aware of this issue from the start," Valdes said. "As long as users have control, and the knobs and dials of the privacy settings are visible and manageable to the average user, the chances for problems will be reduced."