Chris Barton 's Opinion

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton: Indispensable tools for travellers

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Mobile meets internet meets location services meets consumer-led innovation compiled into an app such as Yelp is just one those indispensable services that smooth the way for a stranger in strange land. Photo / Thinkstock
Mobile meets internet meets location services meets consumer-led innovation compiled into an app such as Yelp is just one those indispensable services that smooth the way for a stranger in strange land. Photo / Thinkstock

The problem started with Yelp. Finding ourselves in San Francisco on the night of the Rugby World Cup final, we had done our homework on which was the best bar to watch the game. Yelp had given the Kezar Pub in Stanyan Street four stars so we headed there at 11.45pm, about an hour before kick-off.

The place was already packed, but we were hopeful there might be somewhere to sit at the back. There wasn't and soon it was hard to breathe. In truth I should have read the reviews a little more closely - "this place can get stupid/crazy crowded for world cup games" and "people were packed like sardines". We decided to make a run for it - the three of us linking hands and me bulldozing through the crowd like a front row forward.

Yelpers gave several other options nearby - Danny Coyles and Mad Dog in the Fog - but both were full too.

They also suggested the Abbey Tavern on Geary Boulevard about eight minutes away by car. We gave them a call and found they still had room. How did we do all this? By iPhone - including navigating there by Google Maps. In truth it was our daughter-in-law doing all the work. She's of the generation that's permanently tethered to their iPhone, and thus can make it solve any problem.

This was mobile meets internet meets location services meets consumer-led innovation in action, helped in no small part by our guide's scorching iPhone skills and cool head in a crisis. Although we missed the haka, it was thanks to her that we did get to see the nail-biting final - sitting comfortably watching a big screen amidst mostly French supporters which provided a great atmosphere. Thanks to Yelp also - just wish someone had written an app for crowd control.

Yelp, which isn't available here yet, is one those indispensable services that smooth the way for a stranger in strange land. An online company that begins with a simple idea - in this case a recommendation service aggregating user reviews - that burgeons into something huge. It launched onto the San Francisco market in October 2004.

Today it has something like 63 million monthly unique visitors, with Yelpers having written over 22 million local reviews. Its brilliance is literally being in the right place at the right time so you can ask it via mobile things like: "Where to eat in Monterey open now?" Answer: Old Fisherman's Grotto - the clam chowder is superb and so, apparently, is the deep fried cheesecake, but we didn't go there.

Trusted user recommendations are the new indispensable tool for the savvy traveller - providing information that's both a boon and a bother. Who hasn't pored over Trip Advisor and dismissed staying at certain establishments because of the mentions of bed bugs? I've always been perplexed about such consumer-written reviews - never entirely certain if they're true, the result of a malicious disgruntled customer or a campaign to put a competitor out of business.

Both Trip Advsior and Yelp are facing legal action over disparaging reviews - Trip Advisor over its 2011 Dirtiest Hotels rankings and Yelp over whether it extorted advertising from businesses in exchange for favourable treatment.

So far it looks as though the law is on the reviewers' side, with the United States Communications Decency Act providing immunity to internet services which publish the opinions of others.

But such services are not without pitfalls as the highly successful Airbnb found out in July when a host's home was vandalised by a guest.

The service was born out of the idea two cash-strapped friends had to put people up in their San Francisco loft for a small fee. The response was so positive that they realised they had stumbled onto something - the concept of staying in real homes, and with like-minded people.

Started in 2008, the company, described as a disruptive innovation for the hotel industry, now has over 100,000 listings in 16,000 cities and 186 countries - ranging from rooms, couches, homes and islands to castles and even an airplane sticking out of a tree.

I haven't yet had the courage to use the service, but my brother-in-law uses it all the time as both a host and guest. When we met in New York, he had a basement apartment in Queens for $US70 a night whereas we had picked a nice, but compact midtown hotel room at $US250 a night. Ouch. His advice: read the reviews - reputation is everything. The same goes for CouchSurfing, which requires an even more adventurous spirit.

But perhaps the ultimate example of easing the alienation of a stranger in a strange land, or indeed of a stranger in an increasingly strange world, is Quora. While most of us might begin our web journey on Google, chances are when you type a question there today; you'll get an answer back from Quora - or depending on your question - from Yelp or one of the growing throng of website pioneers pushing alternative ways to find what you're looking for.

Quora describes itself as "a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it". Others describe it as a knowledge market and reckon it's going to be bigger than Twitter.

It also promises to be yet another disruptive innovation for the media industry. It was Quora that first provided answers to the question: "Why did Steve Jobs choose not to effectively treat his cancer?"

And if you're still wondering: "Is Occupy Wall Street for real?" Quora gives a remarkably solid set of answers.

- NZ Herald

Chris Barton

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton is a freelance writer with 28 years experience in newspapers and magazines. He's been writing about technology since 1986, was the founding editor of New Zealand PC World and has won numerous media awards, including, in 2009, journalism's top prize, the Wolfson Press Fellowship to Cambridge. He has a Master of Architecture, teaches part time at the Auckland School of Architecture and is an architecture critic, winning, in 2014, the Canon Media Awards Reviewer of the Year.

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