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?

Geospatial Data Sources

US Tornadoes 1950-2012

Finding open Geospatial data sources can be a challenge sometimes but there are plenty out there to take advantage of. Where do you find this data? What formats are they in? Are they commercially available or are they provided by the government? In this article we've come up with a list to get you started with a good foundation. Be mindful this is no where near everything but we hope what is below can lead in setting a good foundation.

US Government Open Data

    Among the most reliable and publicly available data comes from Government. 
  • Data.Gov -  As we talk about Government data we should first mention Data.Gov. Although many departments of the government still act as standalone data source producers, Data.Gov is an initiative by the federal government to have one place where anyone can go to retrieve government open data. Since it first came online a few years ago, it has grown from a loose archive of static data files to a central nexus where multiple departments are finally connecting their open data in one spot. Departments such as the National Archives are now contributing this site.  Developers can even access some data sources from the site using APIs. Data.Gov has a long way to go before it's links all the other Government departments into the initiative so you will still need to be aware of some of the other data source websites scattered.
  • Geo Gov Data - Now completely merged with Data.Gov this was a filter for all geo friendly government datasets. 
  • US CensusDemographic Data - Every 10 years the US gathers data on a national level from every citizen and business in the United States for the purpose of tax accountability but the data itself has demographic value on a large scale. The Census Bureau even has APIs for developers to bring in the data into their own applications. Visualizing Census data is nothing new but merging the data with other sources has the potential to create powerful in-depth analytic maps and statistics that drill down to the zip code. This data has tremendous value especially looking at the data in historic trends and demographic expansion related to business geographically.
  • Census TIGER Products -  Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing (TIGER) Products is an extension of Census data in GIS ready formats such KML, SHP, and GDP
  • Federal Communication Commission (FCC) - Doesn't expose too much data easily discoverable on their website but what it does have is files in reference to geographic market areas of radio/cellular licenses. The FCC's website has hints at having contributed to the initiative and more data might be found there
  • USA.Gov -Points to a variety of government websites containing downloadable data essentially acting as a connector.
  • USDA Forest Service/US Live and Historic Fires Detection - The USDA MODIS data is updates multiple times a day and provides information related to the latest fires around the nation. You can find archived fire data and live fire data in many formats with the most readily usable in KML network links.
  • USGSEarthquake and Volcanic data - The USGS has one of the most open and flexible government datasets available to the public primarily related to seismic activity around the globe. Developers can find shape files, KMLs, and active data feeds to use within their applications. 
  • Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) - The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission contains worldwide data set of topography giving a free and accurate model of the Earth available on demand. 
  • US Hydrography coming from USGS contains data set related to water levels around the United States. Stations around the country monitor bodies of water, streams, and rivers to indicate a variety of things such as floods and droughts. The data is updated periodically and in static formats such as GDB and shapefiles.  
  • National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Products and Services is responsible for offering a wide range of finished products for the public such as aeronautical charts, Maritime safety data and Topographical maps. NGA is also not a contributor on GitHub which can be found here:
  • Digital Mapping Charting and Geodesy Analysis Program (DMAP) Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Mapping Branch offers a public tile server available through OGC standard web services such WMS, WMTS, KML, and WFS. The tile server contains nautical charts, Maritime Products (MODU, Broadcast Warnings, and ASAM), and aeronautical charts.
  • NASA Visible Earth is a catalog of images of earth which are more end products but can be useful in some scenarios. The data sets are easily searchable and at the very least offer unique snapshots of the planet.
  • NOAAOffice of Coast Survey GIS Data contains not only nautical charts but GIS data feeds such as WMS Services for maritime watches and warnings, limits and boundaries, and historical maritime map references.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) contains numerous datasets, models, decision support tools, and programs that EPA manages, oversees, supports, or uses. Programs, tools and data cover the following categories: Air, Water, Land Preservation & Restoration, Healthy, Communities & Ecosystems, Compliance & Stewardship. 
  • US Fish and Wildlife Services Geospatial Services contain data related to the following: Coastal Barrier Resources (CBRS), Critical Habitat, USFWS, Ecosystem Regions, Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs), Migratory Bird Conservation, North American Bird Conservation Joint Ventures, National Wetlands Inventory (NWI), National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS), Boundary data, NWRS Transportation Assets, Office Locations, and Regional Boundaries. 
  • National Park Service GIS Data doesn't host any specific datasets accept for perhaps downloadable maps of the National Parks around the nation but they do make available a wide list of links and resources that are related to the National Parks which much of it is managed by the USGS. Regardless, this linked assets provides a good starting point for anyone searching for NPS data.
  • National Counter-terrorism Center (NCTC) - does not openly contain GIS data but reports about threats and activities are a good indication of events worldwide. NCTC does contain data available on request but not necessarily publicly available.
  • Washington DC GIS Catalog contains one of the most publicly available and extensive GIS databases for a city and a model we hope many cities replicate. Everything from crime data to property data is available in a variety of GIS friendly formats.
  • Pro-Logic GAPS Feeds (USSTRATCOM) - Not necessarily updated this site at the very least gives users an idea of what can be done with Google KML files related to government. Some of these files contain a good foundation of data sets as related to Homeland security and US based infrastructure. 

Public/Commercial Data

  • Social Explorer - "Social Explorer provides quick and easy access to current and historical census data and demographic information. The easy-to-use web interface lets users create maps and reports to illustrate, analyze, and understand demography and social change. In addition to its comprehensive data resources, Social Explorer offers features and tools to meet the needs of demography experts and novices alike." - from their webpage 
  • National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS)  - "funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) provides, free of charge, aggregate census data and GIS-compatible boundary files for the United States between 1790 and 2012." - from their website
  • University of Texas Maps - Using the University of Texas as an example many colleges provide open data for the public to take advantage of. Whether the data is available for each map varies. One example is the current Ebola Alerts Map.
  • Free Map Tools - GIS analyst at home but don't have all the money spend on tools and applications then you may want to check out Free Map Tools. From their website they describe themselves as "An online resource that enables visitors to easily and quickly use maps in order to measure, search and overlay mark-up elements on maps for a wide range of useful applications."
  • Old Maps - is a website to help users search for historical maps. The site then redirects the user to where they can purchase prints or download the data depending on the map. It should be noted that the David Rumsey Map collection is a major source of historical maps but you can also find those on other websites that provide those maps for free.
  • Free GIS Datasets - This page contains a categorized list of links to over 300 sites providing freely available geographic datasets

Google Earth Based Data - Working with KML/KMZ

Google Earth as Displayed in Google Maps

Google Earth has been a major influence over the last decade in bringing Geospatial awareness to the common explorer. With that said KML and KMZ data are very useful and flexible formats for dynamic and static datasets not just for Google Earth but for online map applications as well. Here is a small list of some sources of those unique file types.

  • Google Earth Gallery contains an archive of Google Earth ready maps and data provided by Google and contributed by many viewable through Google Map Engine along with a download to Google Earth. 
  • KML Factbook - This site is contains world wide demographic data and acts as an extension of the CIA worldfactbook to download the data in KML format.
  • Google Earth Hacks - contains a library of unique Google Earth resources, files, and side applications to aide in what any user might need to do using Google Earth. 
  • Google Earth Blog - Links to Google Earth resources courtesy of an awesome blog worth subscribing to just as much as ours is. ;)

Fusion Tables

I can't end this article without mentioning the value of FusionTables which is a great resource for any GIS user. It's a free resource by Google in Google Drive that allows the user to upload GIS datasets in KML or Shapefiles (Some conversion maybe necessary, or even a spreadsheet of data into their online data table which allows the data to be quickly visualized in map format, aggregated with other FusionTables or accessed through data points such as KML or FusionTable APIs. This tool essentially allows the user to turn static date into dynamic data. Here are a few examples of Public Fusion Tables datasets.

There is an abundance of free GIS datasets out there and we are by no ways listing all that is available. An honorable mention should be social media APIs available to allow for the extraction of social chatter from applications such as Twitter, Google+, Facebook and more. We may get into that with a future article. Our goal is to at least increase awareness of what is out there for GIS specific purposes for starters. Do you know any government or commercial data out there please post in the comments. This list is very US heavy but we'd like to add more information on worldwide free GIS information available so please help us create awareness on what's out there.