Android Apps

Mobile Checkin Apps

In the first year's of Android smartphones applications such as WhereGowalla, and Foursquare were the vanguard in providing a checking service that not only provided a useful utility purpose but also made the experience fun. It didn't take long before Google made an extension out of Google Maps called Latitude which had huge advantages in live tracking contacts and pulling one's own historical data whether it be manually or through an API that once existed. Social networks such as Facebook eventually made their own check-in service, Facebook Check-in, creating a more social experience allowing a user to check themselves into a location but also checking who is with them at a location or an event similar to Foursquare. Sometimes applications like Yelp  include a checkin service but not as their primary feature.

The Where app was one of the first geospatial directories to look for nearby events and places relevant to the users interests locally when Android first came out and Google Maps mobile was less encompassing in features. The user could quickly find local yellow book listings, restaurants, and other businesses based off category or search.Where had a checkin service which helped in giving a User local ads and deals around the user along with a variety of other options. The checkin feature in the "Where" application was hidden and became lost in the depth of features their application had. Overall it was a very good application but Where was acquired by Ebay/Paypal in 2011 and eventually faded into history no longer available to download.

Status: Acquired in 2011 - App No Longer Available

Gowalla was fun application to checkin because it was about awarding users badges for checking in to certain types of places often or a variety of places. In addition users or organizations could make their own checkin challenges to submit to the public to achieve custom badges, such as checking into every country at Epcot to achieve the "Around the World" Badge. This was also a business model for them as they could get companies to create challenges for checking in to certain restaurants or businesses. At the time is was looked at as a competing service with Foursquare as they both emerged as similar start-up checkin services the same year. Sadly the fun checkin service Gowalla was bought by Facebook in December of 2011. The application was dissolved and forgotten and the acquired team team went on to work on the checkin service at Facebook.

Status: Acquired in 2011 - App No Longer Available

Google Latitude had a variety of unique capabilities. It not only showed the users's location on the map but also the users contacts once they were invited and accepted to share location data. The application also stored the history of a user's location data allowing them to pull the data historically through a web interface and even export the data as a KML viewable in Google Earth. The service allowed for a live KML service for each user depending on the shared permissions allowed a huge flexibility in how this data can be used. Google created an API for latitude which allowed for other mobile applications such as Latify to standup which creating a unique way to use the live and historical data pushing it to Fusion Tables to do even more. The checkin service worked alongside the live tracking to actively make aware the users location relative to contacts using the same application. At one point Google even created a unique statistics page connected to the historical data page which a user can view all the checkins and view a graphical visualization of where they go the most, Airport connections they've made, and a fun chart in how far they've traveled relative to the distance from the Moon. Google Latitude was a baked well put together product which eventually was stripped and integrated into Google+ for their location sharing service. Checkins became directly integrated with posting on Google+ and the API for Google Latitude disappeared completely. Users can still pull historical data from the location history page which includes data from the current Google+ integration but this doesn't include checkin data. (

Status: Checkin Features and Location Sharing Transferred to Google+

Facebook offers a straightforward checkin service that allows the user, similar to Google+, to checkin as a post in Facebook. The post can include a picture or a description of activity. A unique feature to checking in just like on Foursquare is that you can include who is with you, adding friends from your contact list, which checks them in as well. Other than being a social checkin service sharing the event with your contacts on Facebook checking in on Facebook as no added value besides adding to the history of your activity in your timeline. If this checkin post was made public then a developer could extract the checkins to a map using the Facebook API applying value to third parties not necessarily the user.

Status: Operational and remains consistent

Yelp's application helps users find places nearby. Yelp is known for their user driven review system and their mobile application is an extension of that. Checking-in using Yelp allows you to share your experience with your contacts on Facebook and Twitter. Another form of checking in is using Yelp's feature to reserve a table at a venue using OpenTable, a separate application but in this case its reservation services are integrated into Yelp.

Status: Operational and remains consistent

Foursquare Old Logo

Foursquare New Logo Finally we have Foursquare. With Gowalla and Where dropping out Foursquare has risen above the rest as one the premier checkin apps for mobile. When Foursquare started out, their features were similar to Gowalla in that they offered badges for completing certain types of checkin accomplishments like checking into a Bar ten times. Like Gowalla Foursquare the application experience was wrapped around the concept of checking in. However, what stood them out was their business plan involved advertising local businesses. Local businesses could promote deals based on if someone checks into their establishment and if the user is someone who has checked in the most above everyone else they are labeled "The Mayor". With that titled the user maybe entitled to additional deals premium discounts or deals at that establishment. Another feature was the competitive point system which added to the Mayorship on a more open scale but you can compete for points on whoever checks into places the most between you and your contacts. That Gamification using badges, points, discounts and deals based on checkins, and the Mayorship feature quickly made Foursquare the premium Location checkin based service. Users are also able to export their checkin data as RSS/KML/ICS. Developers have an API they can pull from as well allowing them to take advantage of the Foursquare checkin service in their own applications.

Foursquare has come along way since its launch in 2009. In the last week the company has separated their application into two separate application aimed at serving two different purposes; Foursquare and Swarm. Checkin features have now been watered down into Swarm which advertises on Google Play to be a more focused on the social aspect of checking in with your contacts as mentioned with the following features:

  • Quickly open up the app to see who is out nearby. 
  • Checking in is faster and more fun than ever.
  • Got an idea for something fun to do? Easily message all of your nearby friends.

You can still checkin with Swarm but its lost the appeal as it no longer has the popular features such as Mayorships and checkin discounts you previously had with the original Foursquare application. The Foursquare application maintains the name but has evolved into features dedicated to finding locations you are interested in based off of what they know about you. As the application learns more about what you like in different venues the searches begin to become more personalized. When you find an establishment you can view tips about the venue. If you leave tips or share your experience about the place you are at you earn "expertise". The service seems wrapped around the idea of finding local knowledgeable experts who use the application and rating them among their peers. In comparison its a different spin on Yelp reviews. 

The new redesign and separation of Foursquare into two applications has come with much criticism. Many people don't like that they now have to use two applications instead of one. Others are wondering what happened to the Badges and Mayorship features which made Foursquare a popular service to begin with. Comments in both apps indicate they don't understand the purpose of using one or the other now. With these growing pains and user frustration many users are now being driven back to Facebook or Yelp for their checkin services.

Status: Checkin services are now transferred to Swarm App. Foursquare App itself doesn't have checkin feature any longer but now provides enhanced intelligent discovery and search based on user interests.

In summary, Checkin services still have a strong presence in the mobile world and there are many small scale ones out there I have not listed in this article but the above highlights the major ones that reach the masses. However, checkin applications are becoming less of a standalone application and more of a side feature alongside a social experience or discovery of local businesses to promote deals and events. This isn't bad but at the same time current versions of the remaining checkin services that exist no longer have the gamification or competitive feel that created that fun factor giving people that additional incentive to checkin even if their wasn't a deal offered or a friend in the area. This could be because the concept of checking-in is based off relying on a manual workflow where the users press a button to check themselves in. With refined location-based technology on mobile platforms checking-in could become more automated so it may not be as important in finding ways to encourage the users to checkin compared to taking advantage of their devices location data to give them what they are really looking for; local deals and social-geo interaction. As much as Checkin applications are moving in this direction they risk changing things to fast or too drastically for the user to understand the benefit while sacrificing what users liked about the old versions of checkin applications. Latitude into Google+ is a good example and so is the recent conversion of Foursquare.

Thank you for your time in reading this post. Please comment on your opinions on checkin services. I'd love to hear which service you use the most and why. What do you think of the new Foursquare/Swarm? What do you miss about checkin services in the past?

GIS on Mobile?

Image from NationMap.Gov

GIS on mobile can mean a lot of different things. I like to think it depends on what the user's requirements are as there is no one source solution to GIS as a whole. I was inspired to write an article on the topic after an inquiry put out by one of our Google+ contacts asking what Android had to offer for apps relating to GIS recognizing that iOS has many. I think there are many applications that can fit the billet that are not even categorized in the GIS realm even though they should be. Just asking for something GIS related in general is a broad request therefore let's start with what our contact is actually asking for.

"Primarily something to take into the field for data collection. Something that will allow easy uploading of basemaps ahead of time, collecting point & line features using GPS. Definitely has to be able to work in an offline mode."  

So if we interpret his request correctly he is looking for a mobile app that can do the following:

  • Has the ability to work offline
  • Can record GPS points or Tracks
  • Can download or preload Maps
  • Allows user to upload map files for basemap such as USGS Topo maps
  • Can export data in a variety of GIS formats

The request has a very specific purpose as the individual would like to use a mobile application as an operator not necessarily as a desk GIS. The request doesn't involve any specific analysis then it could be more under the topic of a GPS application than GIS. None the less I began my search on Android where my first thought didn't bring me to a single mapping application that can satisfy all of the requirements but multiple apps that with one or two features here and there. I've used Google My Tracks with great success in recording GPS locations live and it gives you the option to sync/export the data to FusionTables, Spreadsheets, or some other type of storage device. However as stated My Tracks doesn't meet all the requirements. We still need an application that can not only record GPS, do it offline, but can allow the user to use or upload their own basemap data such as USGS Topo maps. 

With that said my next thought was Google Maps/Google Earth Mobile. Google Maps does have the ability to let you download Map data but only Google Maps data. Google Earth, you may think what can that do? Well Google Earth mobile has had some significant updates over the course of the last year. If one uploaded their USGS Topo maps to Google Maps Engine you can login to that using Google Earth Mobile. What about offline? Well if you had KML file versions of those Topo maps and moved them onto your device ahead of time you can use them with Google Earth mobile too. I've gotten this to work with other KML files. Okay...sounds like Google Earth is the solution right? Nope, Google Earth does mark you GPS location but it doesn't record it so we would have to use a second app like Google MyTracks alongside Google Earth if we were to go this route. 

My offhand knowledge has been exhausted at this point so what do we do? Go to the play store and do some hard searches. The application that seems to have the most potential meeting the requirements is Backcountry Navigator TOPO GPS. It costs $9.99 for the one time download but also offers a pricey subscription for Topo Maps. In addition it has a subscription option for making High Res Imagery requests from the DigitalGlobe archive. It very specifically states it is great for offline use while recording your GPS location as you go and import GPS waypoints from file formats GPX and KML. The reviews and ratings have this application at a 4.5 out of 5. With that said I concede that Backcountry Navigator TOPO GPS is the GIS application for this specific requirements requested. Will this satisfy our Google+ colleague? Time will tell as we have requested feedback as he tries the application out for his needs. Is this a GIS app or GPS app? I think it can be considered both depending on what the user intends to use the data for but specifically this is more on the side of GPS Mapping app.

Well that brings us back to the question what is a GIS application?

According to ESRI's website A geographic information system (GIS) lets us visualize, question, analyze, interpret, and understand data to reveal relationships, patterns, and trends. It just so happens ESRI has an ArcGIS app on the Google Play store that does just that.  Unfortunately the reviews indicate that the application doesn't do well in without a good connection, let a alone no connection at all.

Other companies such as BAE Systems are using Mobile devices as a ground reporting tool in which data can eventually feed into more advanced GIS applications or databases. Perhaps this is all that is required to qualify as a GIS app. They currently have two apps on the Google Play store right now, GXP Xplorer Mobile and GXP Xplorer Snapshot which compliment each other. Xplorer Snapshot allows users to submit to the Xplorer Server with photos from their mobile device tagging their location. Xplorer Mobile allows the users to search from a vast archive of submitted data to include making queries to news feeds based off a desired location. The user can use the data from search results to create their own reports. BAE Systems showcased another Xplorer Addon application similar to snapshot designed for Google Glass at this year's GEOINT Symposium but is not ready for public release.

As a simple reporting tool many people underestimate their mobile devices in general. By combining the features of the device itself mixed with multiple applications you may have all the tools you need for a GIS Application for visualizing, researching data, recognizing patterns, and even creating a report. I already mentioned the power of using Google My Tracks alongside Google Earth. A few years ago I performed an experiment with a similar application to My Tracks called Latify in which I broadcasted my recorded location in KML as I took a road trip around the nation. The data was dyanamically displayed live on a website where in addition every time I submitted a Geotagged photo it would also broadcast those photos through KML to my website too.

There are many ways to mix and match mobile apps to meet your needs. Traditionally Blogger is known as a Blog management app but it can be just as powerful as a Geospatial Reporting tool. For example with Blogger, you can attach your location to every post, upload images to the post, write a report, and finally submit it to an online audience. What's even more unique is if you attach your location to a blog post you can extract that from the GeoRSS feed and even distribute and convert into KML to share out which means your blog can be a dynamic geospatial reporting tool. To put icing on the cake Google+ is now completely integrated into blogger to allow for a wider collaboration effort from social media or even a private audience if you decide to integrate the blog into a private Google+ page. However, if you have connection with your mobile device using this logic any social media website can become your own personal geospatial reporting tool as long as 1. You Geotag your posts and 2. You Geotag your photos. In the case of social media you may also have to make your posts public just to extract the data from the APIs.

I hope you enjoyed my thoughts about mobile Geospatial applications. There are ton of apps out there and when we get around to it we will list as many as we can but for now we want to know what you think. Do you have a GIS Application you enjoy using on Android or any mobile device? What features does it have that you like? What can it do better? Perhaps you have your own mix of apps that work well for specific Geospatial purpose. Let us know in the comments.