It’s Groundhog Day on Foursquare: Pennsylvania Tourism sponsors new badge

Social media fanatics don’t have to see Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostication live to snag location-based service FourSquare’s latest badge. Sponsored by the Pennsylvania Tourism Office, users checking in anywhere in the world by badge by following visitPA on Foursquare and using the word “Groundhog” can snag the inaugural PA Groundhog Day badge on February 2.

Pennsylvania became the first state to partner with Foursquare last May by populating the network with more than 200 state tourism attractions and creating three custom badges: “PA Shooflyer” (dining), “PA Retail Polka” (shopping), and “PA 4 Score & 7” (history). Since the launch, visitPA has amassed more than 30,000 followers and has awarded more than 12,000 badges.

In a tradition dating to the 1800s, Groundhog Day is celebrated each Feb. 2 in Punxsutawney, Jefferson County, about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh in the Pennsylvania Wilds. According to folklore, if the groundhog emerges in the early morning and sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of wintry weather. If he does not see his shadow, there will be an early spring.

A Webcast of the Groundhog Day festivities will be available, including links to Punxsutawney Phil-related videos on YouTube.

Here’s to hoping for spring’s prompt arrival!

FourSquare is everywhere … even North Korea

Whether you tweet or not, log into Facebook or skip it, you know that social media is everywhere. You just can’t get away from it. There are references on prime-time television, news stories all over the place and special deals at stores large and small. If you think you’re surrounded by this stuff, brace yourself: it’s more pervasive than you realize.

As I was scanning my Twitter stream this week, I saw a tweet by social media company FourSquare, a service that allows people to “check in” at different locations, track their friends and, if they choose, share their locations with the world.

The tweet contained a bold claim, specifically, that the service had recorded check-ins in every country in the world in November … even the most reclusive one:

With 8 check-ins in North Korea, foursquare users visited EVERY country in November! Bouvet Island, you’re one of just 5 territories left…less than a minute ago via web

%Gallery-109277%While FourSquare has yet to accumulate the user base of Twitter (175 million) or Facebook (550 million), it has grown quickly in the past year, going from a mere 725,000 in March to 5 million only 10 days ago … and it’s adding 25,000 every day.

In addition to letting your friends and followers know where you are, FourSquare has some tools that are useful for both occasional and frequent travels, including the ability to record and share tips at each of the locations you visit. While it’s fun to get check-ins at places that are prestigious, fun or remote, nothing says “for the win” – #FTW in Twitter parlance – quite like a North Korea check-in.

So, are you on FourSquare? What’s your craziest check-in? Leave a comment below to get the ball rolling! I have to admit: mine aren’t all that adventurous, but I am the mayor of an Upper West Side bodega. Okay, that doesn’t compare to a DPRK check-in!

[photo by yeowatzup via Flickr]

The future of budget travel: Q&A with Benji Lanyado

Many budget travel topics are old hat. Everyone interested in traveling on a budget knows, for example, about the money-saving potential of hostels, supermarket dining, train passes, and low-cost airlines.

We can come up with tips, talk about new stylish hostels, pass on information about fare sales, and strategize about how best to exploit a particular train pass, but the truth is that there is little among these subjects that is genuinely new.

But what about newer developments in personal technologies? How will they change the way we travel on a budget?

For some time now, freelance journalist Benji Lanyado has been pursuing these questions, mostly in articles for the Guardian. Lanyado has been writing for the Guardian since his last year at university, when the newspaper asked him to be their Budget Travel columnist. Among the most suggestive of his pieces for the Guardian are his TwiTrips articles, through which Lanyado submits Twitter to the on-the-ground challenges of traveling. Most exciting about this series is the ease with which its principles can be adapted for use by readers.

Lanyado also engages larger questions about the future of travel. See this recent article pondering the future of guidebooks for one example.

Q: How did the TwiTrips come about? Have they changed the way you travel in general? That is, when you’re on different sorts of assignments or traveling for pleasure, do you instinctively turn to Twitter for information? On balance, how would you rate these TwiTrips against more conventional travel adventures in terms of obtaining local information and getting a sense of the destination?

A: At the beginning of last year, Twitter was approaching its “moment” in the UK. Jonathan Ross and Stephen Fry were scheduled to talk about it on the former’s Friday night chat show. I’d been thinking about using it for some kind of live travel piece for a while, and had experimented with it while in Berlin to find some suggestions for what to do in between researching for assignments. I was walking down Oranienstrasse and asked my Twitter followers if they had any tips. Within a few minutes someone had guided me into a fantastic little cafe 100 yards away.

I ran the idea past the Guardian Travel editor, Andy Pietrasik, who was very keen for me to try a live Twitter Trip. We ran the first TwiTrip in February, to Paris, streaming it live on the Guardian website a few days after the Fry/Ross interview had aired, and the response was incredible. Over a period of 36 hours I received hundreds of tips, and various news outlets and TV programmes ran stories on it. Since then we’ve done TwiTrips to a dozen destinations across the UK. The last one was Liverpool this November.

I certainly now instinctively turn to Twitter for travel advice when I’m on the road. Compared to traditional media (guidebooks, etc.) I find that the information you can glean from Twitter is more specific, more current, and more personal. It’s an incredible real-time link to the local public. That said, I don’t think it’s the only way to travel. Whatever works for you is great. And few things beat stopping a local, in the real world, and asking him or her what you should do.

I also have a considerable head-start on Twitter newbies, as I’m lucky to have over 5000 followers to help me on my way. As a journalist, I can amplify things to a bigger audience during the TwiTrips. But I still don’t think you need lots of followers to get travel benefits from Twitter. Every major city across the world has scores of people tweeting about what to do when you’re in town, and up-to-the-minute info on events.

The beauty of Twitter is that you can find time-specific ideas (i.e. there’s a great band playing at this great bar TONIGHT) and be connected to the lifeblood of any destination.Q: A few months on from your article on Foursquare in the Guardian, what are your thoughts about the potential of Foursquare as a travel technology? Is it useful essentially as a crowdsourcing device, or are you discovering other uses?

A: Foursquare, primarily, is a lot of fun to use at home. Knowing where your friends have been and where they are is a very nice new frontier for social media. But on the road, the “tips” function really comes into its own. The idea of location-specific recommendations hovering in the air around you is one of the most important new standards in travel technology in years, and it is one of the strongest arguments for apps over traditional guidebooks. When you can have access to information about places within 100 feet of where you are standing, the notion of flicking through 500 pages to find a vaguely suitable tip written a year ago seems a little ridiculous. Foursquare aren’t the first to harness the power of location, but their implementation with the game element is a very neat way to do it.

Q: One pitfall in relying on user-generated content is that it is often difficult to evaluate anonymous evaluators. (Do they share your values, your interests, your standards?) Do you see Twitter as providing a way around this problem? That is, by choosing your followers are you essentially curating information in advance? Or, alternately do you not see this user-generated content pitfall as a problem?

A: Increasingly, I find UGC a little too noisy. Tripadvisor is a good example of this. The service has gone so far beyond a critical mass that there’s now JUST TOO MUCH INFORMATION on it. And yes, you’re right, it’s very difficult to ascertain the validity of UGC, as you usually have no idea whether or not the person reviewing is anything like you or shares your tastes. I don’t really see Twitter as a form of UGC, as there is a lot more face involved. You can usually read about the people who are Tweeting at you, see the type of people they follow, read their tweets etc. You get to know certain people who share your tastes.

Q: Where, if anywhere, do you see social media failing against more traditional media in generating especially useful information for budget travelers?

A: The main problem is the noise. While guidebooks are inherently limited, they are also beautifully confined. For a lot of people, a couple of hundred pages of information is more than enough. The Internet, meanwhile, is seemingly infinite. It’s difficult to know how far you should research into the provincial nooks of the web before you’ve gone too far and have too much information. There is also an issue over trust capital. Guidebooks might be old-fashioned but they are also a relatively safe bet, as they come with a reputation to uphold. That said, I think you are more likely to get crappy advice from a guidebook than from an individual through social media, as there is a lot less accountability with guidebooks.

Q: Do you have you eye on any newish apps or sites for their potential as budget travel tools?

A: I really like the look of the new batch of Time Out city guides, especially considering that they are built to be used offline, using only a GPS signal rather than relying on data roaming. Much cheaper that way. Yelp, Urbanspoon, and some of the augmented reality apps (Wikitude, Layar, etc.) are pretty fun too, although the power of AR is yet to be fully utilised. I’m very excited about developments in 4G (superfast mobile internet) and the apps that will be built around it, but this is a little way off yet.

Visit Lanyado’s blog for musings on technology, soccer, travel, and other topics as well as links to published articles.

Check out Gadling’s budget travel section for more budget travel tips, strategies, and information.

[Image: Elliott Smith |]

Five travel suggestions for Julian Assange of Wikileaks

If you were just let out of solitary confinement after having wandered the globe, where would you go? Now, let’s make it complicated: what if you were one of the most controversial figures on the planet?

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is now out on bail, and for now, he’s staying in the United Kingdom. But, there’s some doubt on how long he’ll be there, since the charges on which he’s being held may not be crimes there (though they are in Sweden, which is the country that wants him).

Well, he’s been granted bail, which means he’s out of solitary confinement but that his ability to travel is still constrained. If he winds up free of the charges against him in Sweden, Assange will probably want to hit the road for a bit and enjoy his newfound mobility … and Gadling is ready with some options.

Here are five travel alternatives for Julian Assange if he beats the rap (please forward this to Assange if you know him):

1. Washington, D.C.: given that he gets a lot of material from our nation’s capital, he could double it up as a work/pleasure trip. Nothing beats multitasking!

2. Reykjavik: Iceland has its own problems; I strongly suspect they don’t give a damn about any emotional or historical baggage that Assange will stuff into an IcelandAir overhead compartment.

3. Pyongyang: The U.S. State Department isn’t particularly active there, which means Assange will be able to vacation in relative peace. Even better, he could go to the Majong Bathing Resort and relax on the beach for a bit.

4. Back in time: since Assange’s lawyer claimed he was being “held in Orwellian conditions,” maybe he should revisit 1984 to see just how accurate the claim is.

5. Stockholm: nothing is as satisfying as delivering a big ol’ F*** YOU in person to the people who wanted to detain you.

Assange can’t really go anywhere until his next court appearance, which is on January 11, 2011. So, he’ll be in the London area for a while especially with curfews and a daily 6 PM check-in at the police station (I wonder if there’s a badge for that on FourSquare …).

If you know Assange, please send him this link with a few ideas on how he can spend his time.

[Via Business Insider, photo by Mataparda via Flickr]

Photo of the day (12.9.10)

Finding contrasts is one of the best things about travel. We love seeing places, people, and cultures different from our own and when we see a familiar item in an unfamiliar context, it’s especially interesting. Pick up any travel article about Turkey, Morocco, or Japan and you’re guaranteed to read a few examples of “old world meets new” contrast. Today’s Photo of the Day by Mike GL captures a moment between a monk and his mobile in front of New York’s City Hall. Recently in Kiev, Ukraine, I saw young Orthodox monks wearing track suit jackets over their robes and chatting on iPhones, and couldn’t help but find the image jarring and funny, but even monks have to stay connected these days. You think there’s a FourSquare check in at the monastary?

Take any good contrast photos? Share them in our Flickr Group – we may just include it as our next Photo of the Day.