Friday, May 27, 2011

Choosing China’s location check-in platform

Like many other Chinese people (I am not talking about the those who were born or grown up here in States) here in Unite States, I’m facing a dilemma when choosing a location check-in game service to share location, pictures and tips with my friends. There seems to be quite a lot options. We have the popular Foursquares, Gowalla, and Facebook, and Google Latitude which jumped in recently, plus Yelp, Booyah, MyTown, and the list can go on and on. However, the problem is that many of my friends are in mainland China who want to see where I have been to and how I felt about those places, but they probably don’t want to install any of those clients on their mobile devices (actually even if they do, they can’t because many social networks applications are blocked in China). For the same reason I can’t see their move and tips either because obviously they don’t share it through any of the location check-in platform above.

The only workaround seems to be choosing one of China’s location check-in platform. Fortunately there is also a long list of those to choose, but none of them made a perfect solution. My top candidate list includes: Jiepang (街旁), Sina (微领地), Sifang (四方), and kaikai (开开). Which one to choose is certainly subjective to each individual person, but here is a list of things (ordered by priority) that I will base my choice on.

1. Size and accuracy of the existing foreign (U.S in this case) venue database;
2. Share check-in with friends on other check-in platform or social networks (Facebooks, Foursquares, Kaixin001, Sina Weibo etc);
3. Being able to add new venue.

To me both #1 and #2 are must for a check-in platform be to usable, and #3 is nice to have but also important.
Venue database

This almost dominates my decision. Sina has its decisive advantage over others in its complete and accurate U.S venue database, which even overcomes its shortage in all other aspects. Just as an example, I live in Rancho Cucamonga, a small size city in southern California, which is not famous and probably unknown to most people in China. No one would expect a Chinese location check-in service to have much venues in this area in its databases. But I was really surprised the first time when I checked in at home, Sina accurately lists closest everything nearby which include a KFC, a RiteAid pharmacy, a Ralphs grocery store, a US Bank (a small local bank I’ve been to), …, and a lot of other small places. None of others have a similar or even close size and accuracy of the venue database as Sina does.

Sharing check-in with others

This is the second most important thing because first I obviously want my check-in to be shared with my friends in other check-in platforms or social networks, and second I obviously don’t want to repeat my check-in on every check-in platform either for my friends in U.S or in China. This seems to be possible in two aspects: either (a) I check-in once on one of them (e.g. Sina) and my check-in will spread out through synchronization to Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, Kaixin (开心网), Weibo (新浪微博) an so on; or (b) I check in through a 3rd party proxy app which takes my check in and broadcast to all my location check in services. Option #b is only possible when everyone has a free open API for venues and check-in which is NOT true for any of the location check-in platform in China, so it is ruled out. Option a is possible in one direction (China check-in spread to U.S platform), and almost all Chinese location check-in services provide you such capability except for Sina.

Adding new venues

This is also very important to both users and location check-in service providers. I am true believer of the fact that a real complete and accurate venue database can only be evolved from volunteered geographic information from those locals who know where they live well. Unfortunately Sina again doesn’t support this feature while all other check-in platforms supports it which is quite disappointing to me. As latest version of Sina (微领地) goes, users are allowed to create new venue and submit to service provide for reviewing and I guess if it is approved then it will be added into existing venue database. This is a big leap to me and makes Sina (微领地) outstands other options in my particular use case.


No one wins because neither Sina or any other candidates has both #1 and #2, but it provokes some interesting thinking on the current situation in the location check-in services market in China. Sina is close because it is the only one who is either interested in or can afford building a relatively complete and accurate foreign venue database. It is also easy to prove that those venues in sina’s database are not coming from any major open free sources (e.g. OpenStreetMap or Foursquare API etc.) So it’s probably from a commercial provider, which in turns logically explains why there are restrictions on adding new venues or modifying existing ones, and why check-in on cannot be spread out to other platforms. Other location check-in platforms in China are still missing a solid venue database to start with, and importing from OpenStreetMap database or relying on the venue API from a popular U.S provider like Foursquares or so seem to be possible solutions.