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Saturday Event is Culmination of Niantic Labs' Fascination with Detroit

Michigan Corps partners with Niantic Labs at Google to create a Field Trip Day in Detroit.
By Sarah Schmid, Xconomy

John Hanke used to run Keyhole, the company whose 3D map browser became Google Earth, and then he led Google’s Geo team, refining location-based products for the tech giant. Then, a few years ago, Hanke went to Google founder Larry Page and told him he was thinking of leaving the company to work on a startup that uses technology to connect people with the real world.

“There’s a new opportunity with mobile technology to do stuff that hasn’t been done—to enhance life when moving through the world,” Hanke explains. “It’s a way to make things better, or richer, without stopping to do a Google search.”

Page loved the idea and asked Hanke to develop it in house, as part of an independent startup within Google, and Niantic Labs was born. Though there has been some secrecy about what exactly Hanke and his crew are up to, Niantic released an app called Field Trip last year that is now available for both iOS and Android.

Hanke calls Field Trip a silent assistant that runs in the background of your smart phone and “taps you on the shoulder” when it thinks there’s something nearby that might be of interest. “Field Trip is designed to let you tap into existing information about your community,” he says. “The information is out there on the Web, but it’s not easily accessible. We take historical information and we have a deep partnership with the hyperlocal publisher Arcadia. We work with them to extract paragraphs.”

Hanke has chosen Detroit as the site for a first-of-its-kind event that incorporates Field Trip into guided walking tours and a scavenger hunt. The event is being held in partnership with D:hive and Michigan Corps on Saturday.

When asked what drew him to Detroit, Hanke says he developed a “strange fascination with Detroit by following the travails of the city.” He admits to being captivated by the smorgasbord of Motor City ruin porn laid out across the Internet, and he came to see Detroit as a potential canary in the coal mine for the rest of the United States. “Detroit seemed to be the vanguard of collapse, but it also seemed to be the vanguard of resurgence.”

When he met Michigan Corps’ executive director Elizabeth Garlow, she loved idea of an app that would give users “awesome” facts that helped encourage them to care about their city. Hanke also went on a tour of Detroit with D:hive, which he called “the living embodiment of Field Trip,” and realized how closely Garlow’s, D:hive’s, and his own passions aligned.

Detroit is now one of about 30 cities with which Field Trip has an enhanced partnership. Hanke says when he launched the app, part of the idea was to point out a city’s “hope spots,” an idea Detroiters can definitely appreciate. “It felt like a great application for the technology we were building,” he adds.

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