If you’ve used Foursquare and ever seen a "Nearby Tip," then you’ve experienced geo-fencing.

A geo-fence is like an outline of a specific location or area that, when you are inside, allows additional messages or information to be brought to your attention. Pretty straightforward: If it isn’t "nearby" then don’t show it.

More advanced uses for geo-fences in location services are coming. These new features are being driven by advances in data services, software interfaces and mobile hardware.

If you’re new to the idea of geo-fencing, check out some previous articles on Inman to check out: "Geo-fencing and mobile marketing," and "Geo-fencing: next in mobile marketing?"

Data services like Location Labs and Urban Mapping are increasing the flexibility of geo-fencing and facilitating app developers in their quest for location-based glory.

Software and app interfaces to location data are being developed by Foursquare, Gowalla, Facebook and Google, and others.

Simultaneously, location-aware hardware is being deployed on platforms such as Apple’s operating system and Google’s Android operating system.

Mobile devices allow the possibility of gathering location information about people in real time. Location-based software services provide the motivation for people to actually provide their location information. (It’s amazing what people will do in order to get a little digital status badge, isn’t it?)

The proliferation of this ecosystem of hardware and software leads to all sorts of interesting things.

Monitoring human traffic patterns is a science that previously was limited to retail stores and their closed-network video systems. Now, the ability to gather this data is being taken to the streets.

As location-services become more ubiquitous, learning more about how geo-fences work could provide you with an edge in the digital landscape.

This is true whether you’re developing a better real estate mobile app or whether you’re purchasing a marketing tool or advertising that relies on geo-fencing capabilities.

At minimum, you will need to know a couple things to make a geo-fence:

  • A map boundary for where your fence will be.
  • Something that you want to happen when you (or someone else registered with the service) crosses the fence.
  • A geo-fence is just a digital switch that you can use to let other software do things.
  • Just like you might set an e-mail rule to "put all e-mail from Joe into Joe’s Project Folder," you can use geo-fencing to set a rule that "when someone enters Joe’s restaurant, send them a message to thank them for stopping by."

Different kinds of fencing

There are a couple different types of geo-fence. I’ll outline them here with a couple of potential use-cases for real estate.

1. Static geo-fence: This is the most basic kind of geo-fence. Draw a box on a map and that’s your geo-fence. The most important aspect of this sort of geo-fence is the location.

Today, you can use this kind of geo-fence to market property by setting up "nearby tips" in Foursquare. The effectiveness of this will depend on whether anyone is checking in on Foursquare near to the property. In the same way, you might want to use your physical office location to promote listings.

Or maybe you could build your own app that takes all the location data from your local Internet Data Exchange (IDX) feed and creates static geo-fencing around all of the houses for sale.

2. Time-based geo-fence: This geo-fence builds upon the static type, adding the element of time. In the time-based geo-fence, the location is relevant only during certain times. With this type of geo-fence, the time element is just as important as the location.

For example, in your local IDX feed location app, you might offer open-house information. The open houses are available only for a certain time, so those geo-fences would turn on or off depending on the hours of the actual events.

3. People-based geo-fence: The boundaries of the geo-fence don’t have to be based on map data. In a people-based geo-fence, the fence moves around or is otherwise influenced by the movements of people using the system. In this kind of geo-fence, people are the most important aspect of location.

For example, in the example of a local IDX feed, perhaps you track real-time movement of people using the system during a big open house day and set a map based on this information.

Or maybe you allow people using the system to retrieve real-time location data on the real estate professional who can answer their questions about a specific property (might want to have an on/off switch for the real estate pro on that one).

Thinking of geo-fences in terms beyond the simple line-on-a-map model opens us up to understanding and using traffic patterns to make things that people like.

These developments are part of the broader "Internet of things" trend in bridging the digital world and the real world.

4. Bonus round: Stumble.to is making an automatic hardware detection platform that will work on a variety of radio-equipped devices including Nike+ sensors, in addition to laptops, etc.

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