Crawling the City: Geolocation and/as Free Labor in the Platform Economy

Authors: Will Payne*, University of California - Berkeley
Topics: Geographic Information Science and Systems, Urban Geography
Keywords: Digital Geographies, Critical GIS, Location-based services, Geolocation, Urban Geography, Political Economy
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: 8201, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Digital location-based services (LBS) like Yelp and Foursquare market themselves as trusted place-based review and recommendation platforms that help city dwellers and tourists alike to find new places to eat, drink, shop, and spend their time. But these services, and similar offerings by larger technology companies like Google (Maps/Local), Facebook (Places), and Apple (Maps), rely on a combination of in-house technology, public spatial data, and unpaid contributions from their users. By enabling passive location services queries on their phones, checking in to local businesses, updating incorrect information, and leaving tips and reviews, these users maintain a variety of competing and ever-evolving consumption maps of urban space. The geocoded content they produce is also highly valuable to third-party platform developers and services, as seen through the brisk business Foursquare and Yelp do in business development partnerships and data licensing.

This paper draws on archival research and interviews with employees at LBS companies and members of the Yelp Elite Squad and Foursquare Superuser programs, which exist to recognize and incentivize the most productive volunteer laborers for these companies. Individuals' motivations for joining these programs vary, as do their understandings of their crucial role in maintaining the market values of these companies through their efforts. I explore how LBS companies deploy gamification, immaterial labor, and social pressure to ensure free access to a continuous stream of accurate spatial data.

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