Meet Sense Networks, the latest player in the hot 'geo' market

The company, now out of stealth mode, hopes to make most of its money through corporate clients. It does, however, have a nightlife-navigating BlackBerry and iPhone download that could be pretty cool.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

What if your nightlife agenda was dictated not by text messages, phone calls, or your city edition of Time Out, but by a shifting pattern of dots on a Google Map?

As absurd as it may sound, a New York company called Sense Networks thinks that's the solution. On Monday, the company emerged from stealth mode and simultaneously released an "experimental" product called CitySense, an urban navigation product that puts a new spin on the hot market of location-based mobile networking.

A Citysense map of San Francisco. Sense Networks

Backed by hedge funds rather than the venture firms that typically fuel tech start-ups, Sense Networks wants to do a whole lot more than just tell you where your friends are. Rather, the company plans to use its database of location-based information--sourced not only from people who download its mobile client but also from previously untapped resources like taxicab GPS logs--to create both consumer- and enterprise-oriented products. It's calling that mapping technology "Macrosense."

CEO and co-founder Greg Skibiski described Macrosense to me as a platform for crunching and analyzing location-based data in real time. That has major implications for the retail and financial services industries, he told me. If it's accurate, it could be a huge asset for predictive markets--as well as possibilities for some cool consumer applications.

The first of those, Citysense, has been unveiled along with its more corporate sibling. Currently available as a free download for BlackBerry and iPhone handsets, Citysense displays what look like heat maps to show where the most human activity is going on at that moment, down to the street intersection; future releases of the product may make those locations even more detailed, but Skibiski said that's not yet decided due to the important issue of privacy concerns.

In its initial alpha phase, it's limited to San Francisco. Other cities, including New York, are in development.

Citysense can also show you where, based on historic data, the most "unusual" levels of activity are going on. You then have the option of looking up nearby businesses on Yelp and Google Maps, or bookmarking locations on Socialight, thanks to external APIs built in.

Then, using the location-aware technology built into the handset, Citysense eventually begins to "learn" where you spend most of your time, and as the product grows beyond San Francisco, eventually it'll be able to suggest nightlife options to you in cities around the country--all this without taking any kind of user registration information.

That's a crucial talking point, considering some people are inevitably going to find Citysense and its brethren more than a little bit Big Brother-ish. Skibiski stressed to me that it's not for meeting people, it's for "meeting" places: No personal information is mined, users have the option to completely erase their past navigation histories if they wish, and there's no way to track other users in the system, he said.

Citysense, with its focus on "unusual activity" and machine learning, might be a bit too wacky for the average BlackBerry user, but that's not a big deal for Sense Networks. The company plans to profit primarily from business clients purchasing deeper data from the Macrosense platform; Citysense and all future consumer applications are intended to be strictly icing on the cake.