The developing world leading Europe?

I recently discovered a company called OpenSignalMaps. They provide data for people who are looking for a way to link mobile phone signal, or cellular signal, to geography. So, let’s say that you’re in an area and you’re looking to switch network; you could just use their service to work out what kind of signal you’re likely to get.

This is a very useful service, and I wish I’d heard about it prior to today. I switched to a new mobile network with the release of the iPhone 4S, and prior to switching, I bought a Pay As You Go SIM card from the prospective network and used it with my iPhone 3GS for a week, swapping it in and out to try and get a picture of what signal would be like around my home at the time. Being able to look up the data on a map would clearly have been much quicker!

How did I find out about the company? Well, I recently read an article by OpenSignalMaps in which they talked about Android fragmentation, and I found it very interesting indeed. I ended up bookmarking it in order to share it with my Twitter following, but not before I’d noticed a couple of sentences towards the end of the article that got my brain whirring.

…the 5 countries where OSM gets most use are: US, Brazil, China, Russia, Mexico. From what we’re seeing the developing world is no longer developing but leading Europe.

I wasn’t sure what to think of that sentence. I don’t feel like Europe is currently trailing in terms of mobile1, and I was wondering whether that was just a pro-Europe bias or whether it was an accurate picture. Then I realised what was bugging me about that list:

All the countries in that list are significantly larger than the countries that comprise Europe.

If your product is a way for people to see what the cellular signal is like in their area, it stands to reason that this product will be more popular in countries with bad cellular signal. In a small country, it takes fewer towers to completely cover the country, and so coverage will be better, I reasoned. This would provide an alternative reason for why the app has not seen as many downloads in Europe.

Once I had started down this line of thought, I wanted to check whether my suspicions had any basis in fact. In terms of the world’s largest countries by area, what positions are occupied by the five countries listed? Where is the largest European country on the same list? So, I looked for answers, and found the relevant Wikipedia article, entitled List of countries and dependencies by area.

Of the five countries on OpenSignalMaps’ list, four of those countries are in the top five countries by area in the world. They are Russia (largest), China, the USA and Brazil (3rd–5th largest respectively). The remaining country, Mexico, is the 14th largest country in the world. So, how does this compare with the largest European country? Well, France is the largest European country, clocking in at 49th.

I disagree that the data from OpenSignalMaps shows anything like “the developing world…leading Europe”. In fact, I think it shows the plain fact that the relatively small countries in Europe have, in general, a better level of cellular coverage than the largest countries on Earth. An app that exists solely to allow the user to deal with bad cellular coverage (or bad infrastructure in any arena) will do badly in countries that have a good infrastructure. The countries which are leading in app downloads are the very countries that aren’t leading when it comes to getting signal.

  1. British LTE adoption notwithstanding — in five years’ time, maybe we will be trailing. 

Location location location

This evening, I went out for a meal and then some drinks with a variety of friends. Four different people have birthdays at this time of the month, and we were celebrating that. As part of this experience, we went to a restaurant and then two different bars — those bars were Hakamou and Pirates Bar Leicester1. I came away from the evening with some thoughts about the bars and wanted to write them up somewhere.

Hannah and I at Hakamou.
Hannah and I at Hakamou.

My first thought was Yelp, a website that allows people to rate and review places to eat and drink. I used Yelp to help inform my dining choices whilst holidaying on the west coast of the USA with my parents. What makes it so useful is the ease by which you can search for a certain type of restaurant and then see which of the restaurants available has the best ratings (as decided by the Yelp community). However, Yelp hasn’t really taken off in Britain properly — of the nine British venues I’ve reviewed, only one has attracted reviews from anyone else (two others, more than a year apart).2 I wrote a review for Hakamou anyway, but I have no idea whether anyone will find it useful, or whether they’ll even read it!

Where does this leave me? Well, I’ve also put the same review on Google.3 This is because the owners at Hakamou had taken the (very sensible) step of creating a verified listing for the business. Not only that, but Google was able to use my location preferences to work out I wanted to know about their Leicester branch, and not the bar in Northampton. On top of all that, Google realises that people may want to write a review for your venue, and provides a handy ‘write a review’ link under the search result. If there are already reviews for the venue available, it’ll provide a link to those, too, and you can go and peruse them at your leisure.

Hakamou's search result on Google.
Hakamou's search result on Google.

Google’s solution has one advantage over Yelp: its simplicity. Yelp requires you to answer a series of questions, on things like whether there’s a beer garden, what alcohol is available and whether children are welcome, whereas Google just wants a rating (1-5 stars) and a short review. It even removes paragraphs for you. Of course, this advantageous and concise approach to the problem is also Google’s disadvantage, since Yelp gives the user much more detail about the venue in question and also provides a higher level of analysis.

There is, of course, a third option that may not be as obvious: Foursquare. I use Foursquare a lot when I’m abroad or on holiday, since it helps remind me where I was and when. Given how terrible my memory is, that’s a significant feature to be able to offer! Foursquare isn’t really optimised for reviewing or in-depth analysis in the same way as Yelp is, but for short tips and one-line recommendations, it’s a very powerful tool. When using the service in far-away lands, the recommendations it gives can be incredible and really turn your evening around.

The company is clearly beginning to realise that it is this that is the real killer application for the network — the gamification aspect to the service is much less useful, if still a pretty fun way to operate a loyalty scheme. This is backed up by a couple of recent developments: Firstly, the radar feature in the new Foursquare apps on mobile devices. I personally don’t fancy having my GPS on permanently in order to take advantage of this, but it looks like a very good idea that would help you explore a city very efficiently. In fact, TechCrunch published an article not so long ago in which the company talks about helping people to discover and explore new things in such a way.

Location-based services, whether they’re based around networking or just providing information, are something incredibly useful. Unfortunately, in the United Kingdom they currently seem to be very much in their infancy, which is a huge shame. Screw flying cars — the thing that excites me most about the future is restaurant recommendations!4

  1. It’s a pirate-themed bar in Leicester. The name they’ve selected for the bar is not only completely unimaginative but also missing an apostrophe, which is almost as many criticisms as there are words in the name. Also, you’ll note that the link goes to Facebook, rather than a proper website; this is because they don’t have one. It’s 2012. Websites are easy. Keep up, please, people! 
  2. Chimichanga, in Peterborough, if you’re curious! 
  3. I’m still not sure what this feature is actually called. On my iPhone, when I search on Google for something, it seems to be called Google Places. However, the URL is, which would seem to suggest it’s a feature within Google Maps — but saying I wrote a review on Google Maps would sound strange. Anyone? 
  4. Actually, that honour goes to FaceTime/iMessage, but restaurant recommendations are still fairly excellent.