Practical Uses for Location-Based Services

Location-based apps can help you save time and money in your business or personal life. Here are some ideas.

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.

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.

3. Get Tips

Location-aware services like Foursquare allow you to get the straight dope about nearby businesses that you're considering patronizing. When Foursquare users check in from a given place, the app asks them to post "tips" about their experience. These tips usually contain information specific to the place and its product, but can also provide invaluable real-world looks based on actual experience. Like this: "This place is packed and the wait staff can't keep up." Or: "It's Saturday night at 7:30pm and this place is almost empty." Or: "The grilled cheese sandwiches here truly live up to the hype, but I am now $15 lighter. Sigh." This type of information can be very helpful when you're trying to decide whether to patronize this place or that one.

If you're walking around in a city that's new to you, such tips can be invaluable--for instance, enabling you to avoid taking a chance on a business that looks good from the outside but serves horrible food. A bad experience like that can be far worse if you happen to be entertaining clients.

Scattered among the tips are notes about deals that only local people know about. One happy visitor to Austin, Texas last year found a tip about a barbecue joint that serves large $2 margaritas from 5:00 until 7:00 every evening (yep, it was me). Another tip identified the correct way to order at a local joint to earn the reward of a discount on the food. I've also seen tips warning about specific items on the menu that are a bad bet: "This place is OK, but don't even THINK about trying the sushi."

4. Location-Based Advertising

One future payoff of location-based services will be their ability to help small businesses deliver mobile advertisements to potential customers in the area. For instance, a pizza joint might run ads to mobile users as they enter the area at around lunchtime. This type of ad uses combines the location element and the time element to target ads to uniquely qualified prospects. The location element finds mobile users who might already be within walking distance of the business, while the time element finds people who might be hungry.

Not only will these location-targeted ads become more valuable to mobile advertisers, but their increased relevance could be a good thing for you and me, too. If you're in a new neighborhood around lunchtime it might not be bad to see ads for places nearby that serve killer Philly cheesesteaks. Of course, you don't have to take the ad's word for it; you can click on the business's Foursquare entry and read tips left by users who have actually eaten there, to see whether the joint is really all that.

5. Earn Real Rewards

Starbucks has taken the lead in partnering with a location-based site to offer free stuff and discounts to loyal customers, and you can bet many other businesses will follow suit. If you check in at five different Starbucks on Foursquare you get a "barista" badge. Earlier this year, Starbucks launched its rewards program on Foursquare by offering the Mayors of all Starbucks a coupon for a buck off a Frappuccino, which normally costs around four bucks.

As more businesses participate in location-based rewards programs, you could end up reaping rewards just by checking in at many of the stops that you make during the day anyway. Foursquare and sites like it could become your traveling coupon drawer. For places that you frequent, like office supply stores or restaurants, the savings you could realize through rewards programs could add up to a substantial amount over the course of a year—enough to offset overhead.

Location-based services are still a relatively new phenomenon. When they first hit the scene they were geek novelty apps--fun but not very useful. But location-based services As they mature, they will have to provide real-world benefits in order to keep growing. The announcement earlier this year that Facebook has added a location-based element—Facebook Places—seems to strengthen the legitimacy of the whole business. It also puts a lot of pressure on smaller service like Foursquare and Gowalla to innovate or die.

I've provided some ideas about how to use location-based services as they exist today to your advantage or to the advantage of your business. But expect location-based services to develop new functionality in their apps that will make them much more than just novelty apps, saving you time and money in the real world.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I couldn't think of any practical uses for Google Buzz.

This story, "Practical Uses for Location-Based Services" was originally published by PCWorld.

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