Foursquare, Gowalla, and Facebook Places: Practical Uses for Location-Based Services

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As we do more and more computing on mobile devices while away from home or office, our location has become increasingly important. Apps like Foursquare (for Android or iPhone) and Gowalla (for Android or iPhone) were built around location, using GPS, Wi-Fi, and IP address to place us on a map.

These apps then let users “check in” from their location, alerting their friends to where they are and what they're doing. There’s also a gaming aspect: Users can win online trinkets for checking in most often at a given place.

But the novelty of checking in and winning prizes has worn off. Location-aware services must evolve to offer truly useful and valuable services to users, and they will--or they'll perish. Still, even as they exist today, location-aware apps can be used in practical ways to help you communicate better, make better choices, save money, and improve productivity.

Here are some examples.

1. A Multimedia Journal

One nice feature in Gowalla is its capacity for storing photos and associating them with places you’ve been. For instance, if you visit Chinatown in San Francisco, you can load your photos from there into Gowalla, which will then display them with your comments and check-in locations from that day.

The Gowalla tool can be especially useful if your travels involve multiple stops, and you need to carefully organize the data you pick up at each stop. For instance, if you're shopping for an office or house or apartment, you’ll probably see a number of properties—each with plenty of important characteristics worth noting--in the course of your search. Taking notes and pictures is a good idea, so you won't forget or muddle the things you saw, and end up making a less-than-ideal decision.

Using Gowalla you can attach all of your photos and notes to individual check-in locations. This gives you written, visual, and map data so that later you can revisit your experience and your impressions at a specific stop. After the tour is over, you can go to your Gowalla account to review everything you’ve seen and thought, and then make a reasoned decision about which property is best for you.

Of course you can use the same tool for other types of decisions, too. Think car-buying or spouse-hunting. Yes, Gowalla can change your life.

2. Keep Track of Your Routes

You can use sites like Foursquare to create a catalog of your travels for work. Many small-business people need to make numerous stops each day to meet clients, buy supplies, and perform other work-related tasks. Having a log of all these stops can help you keep track of how many miles you’re covering, and approximate the costs associated with your travels.

An entry on the History page at Foursquare.

Using the History page in Foursquare, for example, you can enter notes about what you did, saw, or spent at each location. As your check-ins add up over time, the Stats page in Foursquare provides hands stats such as where you check in most often. If it sounds like a hassle to pull out your phone and check in every time you stop at one of your regular destinations--well, there’s an app for that. The Checkmate app for Foursquare checks you in automatically when it detects that you’ve arrived at a specific address.

Because location-based apps have a social networking component, you can easily share your daily routes with your employees, business partners, or suppliers.

Let’s say that you either lead or belong to a team of mobile workers. You and your teammates need to keep track of each others’ routes, whether to coordinate activities or to avoid duplicating work.

Of course, successfully using a location-based service for this purpose depends on having all members of the team voluntarily share their location via the app throughout the day. This can happen easily if people can use the tool in a way that benefits everyone on the team (not just the boss) by helping them get more done in less time at less expense and with a minimum amount of travel.

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