Location-Based Social Networks Take Off
December 9, 2009 2:00 PM PT

Many millions of computer users around the world have incorporated social networks into their everyday lives, and it’s a safe assumption that an increasingly large proportion of those users are carrying GPS functionality in their mobile phones.

It’s odd, then, that to upload photos, write blogs, or communicate with friends, users still often need to work from a desktop computer. Wouldn’t it make sense to bring the two together, so those social netizens can track and share personal location information on the go?

Xing Xie thinks so.

Chih-Wen Chang and Xiaofang Zhou
Xiaofang Zhou (right) of the University of Queensland, general chair of the International Workshop on Location Based Social Networks, congratulates Chih-Wen Chang, of Taiwan's National Chiao Tung University. Chang presented the paper named the best of the workshop.

That’s what spurred him, along with Xiaofang Zhou, a professor of Computer Science at Australia’s University of Queensland, to organize the inaugural International Workshop on Location Based Social Networks (LBSN), held in Seattle on Nov. 3 in conjunction with the Association for Computing Machinery’s 17th SIGSPATIAL International Conference on Advances in Geographic Information Systems.

“The objective of this workshop,” explains Xie, a lead researcher at Microsoft Research Asia, “is to provide a single forum for researchers and technologists to discuss the state of the art, present their contributions, and set future directions in emerging innovative research for location-based social networks.”

From all appearances, consider that goal met. Of four parallel workshops held during the conference, LBSN drew the most attendees. During the larger conference, the workshop was cited as the “most successful” of those associated with the conference.

“It went very well,” Xie says. “It attracted 33 registrants, and there were lots of discussions and interactions during the workshop. Everyone seemed to think the workshop was great.”

Wen-Chih Peng, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Taiwan’s National Chiao Tung University, concurred.

“During the LBSN workshop, we saw many interesting paper presentations and lots of interactions among researchers all over the world,” he said. “With the increasing popularity of smartphones, we believe that LBSN will provide a fresh frontier to explore new research topics.”

Indeed, Xie indicates that the initial experience has the organizers considering making this an annual event.

“We are discussing next year, since it was quite successful this time,” he says. “In a workshop survey asking if those at the workshop would like to attend in the future, we got a 100-percent yes vote.”

While held in Seattle to gain more impact by its association with the SIGSPATIAL conference, the workshop actually supports Microsoft Research Asia’s theme of Internet Services in its collaboration projects with universities in the Asia Pacific region. The event furthered the goal of the University Relations team at Microsoft Research Asia to build a broader academic community in the region.

The workshop actually broadened the community of interested academics to global scale. While many professors—representing universities from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Australia— funded by the University Relations team got an opportunity to present their work and, in many cases, to provide leadership as part of the program committee, the event also attracted faculty members from the United States and Europe.

LBSN Defined

The workshop’s Web site defines LBSN as “social network services where people can track and share location-related information with each other, via either mobile or desktop computers. As location is one of the most important aspects for people’s everyday lives, a lot of novel application scenarios can be supported by LBSN. For example, we can collect and share more trustworthy location recommendations within LBSN and use them to rank interesting locations and to discover new places, people, and activities.”

With the workshop having concluded, Xie takes an opportunity to elaborate.

“You could track and share your travel trajectory with your friends in real time,” he says, “and they would know where you are from their phones. And you can also share comments, status, and photos, together with your location information.

“Another example is recommendations. When you are in a new city, you could receive suggestions about a good restaurant that has been visited by your friends and that matches your preference.”

The Web site also cites a long list of potential topics of interest for this and, potentially, subsequent workshops, ranging from spatial data mining and knowledge discovery, to geo-tagged multimedia mining, to location privacy, data sharing , and security.

The workshop itself was organized into four paper sessions of four presented papers each:

  • Understanding Users in LBSN.
  • Understanding Trajectories in LBSN.
  • Understanding Multimedia in LBSN.
  • Applications of LBSN.

A presentation titled Mining Trajectory Profiles for Discovering User Communities—written by Peng in conjunction with his National Chiao Tung University colleagues Chih-Chieh Hung and Chih-Wen Chang—was named best paper of the workshop. But all 16 papers delivered—eight long, eight short—were focused on the goal of bringing social networking into real life by enabling experiences that can be shared more conveniently.

This work dovetails with the research vision espoused by Xie and his Microsoft Research Asia colleagues, summarized in the words “build intelligence from the physical world.”

New Intelligence, New Opportunities

This means, Xie says, that context-aware computing seeks to link changes in the environment with computer systems. Computing systems become more intelligent through analysis and reaction to the physical world surrounding them, and the arrival of cloud computing brings new opportunities to this area. Accumulation and aggregation of physical-world contextual information from multiple users and multiple devices over a long period can provide collective social intelligence.

“Based on this, more innovative Internet services can be developed to facilitate people’s everyday lives,” Xie says. “At Microsoft Research Asia, we are working on various technologies with a view to managing physical-world information and building intelligence from them. We link data generated by different people, services, or sensors, based on a unified knowledge model, and provide the intelligence as a service in the cloud.

“LBSN can be one particular example of our vision, by building intelligence from human trajectories and helping social-networking services.”

Xie has been mining this territory since 2007, when he observed the power of adding location and mobile access to social networks. Since then, the convergence has advanced rapidly. It is said that more than 40 percent of mobile phones will have GPS capability by 2011 and that location-based services will mushroom to a market of 13 billion by 2013.

One of the projects his team has spearheaded, GeoLife, an effort led by Yu Zheng, has already explored this area, and others are sure to follow, given the success of the workshop.

During the event, Xie served as program chair, while Gang Guan, a University Relations manager, acted as local chair.

In addition, Xie served as chair for the Applications of LBSN paper session and delivered a welcome speech to attendees and participants. Guan also spoke, introducing Microsoft Research Asia and its university collaboration programs.

‘Very Good Results’

“Early this year,” Guan says, “Microsoft Research Asia sponsored eight projects regarding location-based services across the Asia Pacific region as part of the Internet Services theme program. We’re glad that those projects produced very good results in such a short time.”

Iqbal Mohomed, a post-doctoral researcher at Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, was one of 12 members of the workshop’s program committee. Others representing Microsoft Research Asia for the event were Lei Zhang, lead researcher; Zheng, an associate researcher; and Xin Zou, principal development manager.

Of the 16 papers delivered during LBSN, three were written all or in part by Microsoft Research Asia personnel:

Five other LBSN papers were produced under the Internet Services theme.

In short, the workshop proved a quite rewarding for all concerned.

“People are really excited about this direction,” Xie says, “and a lot of good work is just starting. We can see great potential.”