Mobile Applications

Swarmly Vs Foursquare, Dragon's Den and Privacy

Life is full of problems. Which bars are worth going to on a Saturday night, which restaurants are too busy, where in town are my friends? One app from Scotland is looking to help solve these problems. Founded in 2012, Glasgow-based Swarmly, allows people to share their location anonymously on a public real time map. That data allows users to see where people are ‘swarming’, as well as find friends and interact with nearby users.

“I was fed up with location apps that just showed a few friends or required me to check in. I want to see more than people I know, and I really can’t be bothered checking in everywhere I go,” says Marco De Nichilo, Swarmly’s Co-Founder & CEO.

“As a student when we went out with groups of friends [and] we wanted a map of places and events that were popular right now or where other friends were. I wanted a picture of the crowds, the streets, where people were congregating – there was nothing that did that.” After finding no one was building the kind of app he was after, De Nichilo decided to do it himself. Fast forward to today and Swarmly has tens of thousands of registered users across the UK and beyond.

Being able to see where people are lets you paint up a nice picture of human life. “There is almost always someone in a Starbucks, a McDonalds or a Wendy’s somewhere on the globe at any given time of day.” Outside of the usual mega-chains, there are distinct patterns you see from data watching: At lunchtimes, restaurants get popular. In the evening, bars and pubs fill up. At weekends, people go to the gym. “If our data tells us anything so far it is that people are predictable. We have the potential to alter that; by giving people nearby information, offers or events – a nudge – right when it’s valuable to both the customer and an advertiser.”

Obviously real-time tracking comes with various questions about privacy, but De Nichilo doesn’t see it as a problem. “We separate ‘the who’, from “the where”. We know almost nothing about our users other than very basic info – a username, an email, [their] date of birth and gender.” If the user wants, they can have an avatar showing where they are on the map, otherwise only friends of their choosing can see their location. “We don’t have troves of data about users’ lives like social networks. All that we ask of our users is their location – our focus is not on the individual, our interest is in highlighting the crowds, to build a real time picture of the interesting things going on around us – as it happens.”

Taking on Foursquare and the App Economy

Swarmly benefitted from an unintentional PR boost earlier in the year after Foursquare launched an app called Swarm, but De Nichilo wasn’t concerned about people mixing the two up. “Despite their unfortunate name selection and the seeming overlap, we are focused on different goals and achieving them in different ways."

“Swarmly is more focussed on building a real time map of your friends and seeing and communicating with the world around us. Swarm is focussed on manual check-ins and private sharing of approximate location.”

Studies show very few apps make decent sums of money, while others show people are downloading fewer apps than ever before. What does De Nichilo think startups need to do to stay afloat in this kind of environment? “I think we are only at the very start of where mobile software will go. Until really very recently, smartphones have been toys – [where] people are engaged with games, social media and content. Slowly these smartphones are becoming our primary computing device and handling our day-to-day lives.

“We are moving from simple consumption to using these devices full of sensors to help us live better lives – travel quicker, meet people, find out what is going on, live healthier, get fitter, make money, educate ourselves and come together to achieve social movements. I believe the network effects of everyone having a mobile supercomputer in their pocket will bring about advances that allow us to grow platforms based on their mass scale utility, not simply consumption.”

Dragon’s Den and Scotland

Swarmly was recently featured on the BBC show Dragon’s Den, where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to successful businessmen and women looking to invest in new companies. “We were invited to apply – it seemed like it would be valuable exposure and a once in a lifetime experience,” De Nichilo says.

“We were focussed on the PR exercise, any investment would have been nice, but we didn’t really anticipate an offer.” Not only did they not receive an offer, the Dragons were actually fairly aggressively against the concept. “We were slightly taken aback by how vehemently some of the Dragons were against it, in our minds Peter Jones or Piers Linney would have been most likely to understand the product and its potential.”

“We simply couldn’t convince them of the implicit value of location data and the potential for hyper-local location-based marketing. Kelly and Duncan were very dismissive and actually went so far as to say they really disliked the idea. Peter was focused on using cameras to detect crowd populations – personally I don’t believe this is the right way to go as there is no opt-out and it is highly invasive.” Despite being a popular show, it’s rare to see any technology-based pitches. “It doesn’t help the UK become a tech hub when such high profile media and investors are quite so dismissive of early stage technology startups.”


Dan Swinhoe is Staff Writer at IDG Connect


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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