Location-Based Services: Make the Most of a GPS-Enabled Phone

On the phone
Though you might not like the idea of major companies keeping tabs on you in real time, applications that utilize location technology are steadily becoming more popular among smartphone users.

Location-based services use your mobile device's GPS functionality--coupled with nearby cell phone towers--to tap in to local resources to connect you with people and places in your immediate area.

You can find apps that will point you in the direction of pretty much everything--the beloved Golden Arches, the nearest leash-free dog park, even the nearest clean toilet. Although some may seem pointless or even a little creepy, most location-based services provide extremely helpful services.

Here's a look at some of the biggest location trends to date.

Meet, Greet, and Explore

Among location apps, the stars are the catch-all services that direct you to points of interest in your immediate area and also offer an easy way for you to meet up with your friends. You can then make or change plans on the fly while taking local convenience into consideration.

Though lots of services promise such ease of use and convenience, each has its own spin on the method of providing information. And if you're concerned about oversharing your info, you'll find customizable options for who you share your information with and at what time you do so.

Find your Latitude friends on a Google Map.
On the basic end is Google Latitude, which lets you see where your Latitude friends are on a Google map. You determine who to share your location with and when; you can also hide your location at any time. Of course, once you find a friend you can search Google Maps to see what's in the area, and then invite the person to meet up there.

Loopt uses the location of your phone to help you discover people and places in your immediate area. You log in, see if any of your Loopt friends are around, and ping them to see what they're up to. You can read reviews of local places that other Loopt users have written, and you can post your own in return. Loopt shares real-time location details only with people who have mutually approved each other, so you don't have to worry about random strangers following you. (The free Loopt app is available for Android and iPhone.)

Brightkite is another service intended to keep friends in contact. This app, however, is designed more around a post-and-share functionality. You check in when you arrive at a new location, take a photo, post it to your friends, and write a note or leave a tip about a place or event. Other users can read your tips and posts, but they won't see your location in real time when you check in unless you allow them to. (The free Brightkite app is available for Android and iPhone.)

Play as You Go

Some apps and social networks--such as the ├╝berpopular Foursquare and its competitor Gowalla--have turned collecting location data into a game. Both services take advantage of a model that awards you points when you check in to a new place and lets you compete against your friends and other players. (The free Foursquare app is available for both Android and iPhone; the free Gowalla app is available for both Android and iPhone as well.)

Although the games have similar objectives, they have some key differences.

With Foursquare, you check in via the mobile application when you arrive at a restaurant, a bar, a shop, or even a subway platform. This action lets your friends know where you are, and the info is logged in your Foursquare profile. The more places you check in to, the more points and badges you can earn. If you check in to a certain place more than any other person, you become the Mayor of that spot; lots of businesses offer perks for their resident Mayor, such as free drinks or discounts.

Instead of badges, Gowalla gives you stamps and pins. You receive a stamp for every new place you check in to. Afterward you obtain pins when you reach certain check-in milestones. The service also offers items that you can virtually pick up when you visit specific places, and you can leave the items in other locations for other people to find. You can see where the item has traveled and how many users have found it--a history aspect that gives the game an entertaining edge.

Transportation

People on the phone
Having some basic transportation applications loaded onto your smartphone can save you a lot of trouble if you're traveling in a new city, or even if you just missed your usual bus.

Carticipate is a rideshare application that connects you to local travelers headed in the same direction as you are. You enter where you're going and when, and the application matches you to users with similar plans. From there you can coordinate driver and passengers to earn gas money (if you're the driver) or get a lift. Think of it as modern-day hitchhiking. (The free Carticipate app is available for iPhone.)

Find the closest cab company quickly with the Cab4Me app.
If you're in a large city like New York, catching a cab is as easy as holding your hand up. But in places where taxis are a little less common, the Cab4Me app can come in handy. Turning the app on will find the closest cab company to your current location, and just a tap on the map will initiate a call to request a taxi. (The Cab4Me app for iPhone is $1.99; it's free for Android.)

Public-transportation apps are also available for many major cities, and keeping one for a transit system you use regularly is a good idea. Transport Maps 1.6 offers access to public-transportation maps for cities and countries worldwide. Once you download the app, you can search for the spot you require, or the GPS sensor in your phone will direct you to the map you need. (Transport Maps 1.6 is free for Android.)

You can find localized apps for individual cities that will give you real-time predictions and status updates on trains, subways, and buses. Such apps can also direct you to the nearest stop and give you instructions for getting from point A to point B.

For folks who steer clear of public transit, Trapster can spare you a speeding ticket. Trapster is a speed-trap locator app that its users completely control. If someone is driving and spots a police officer camped out with a radar gun, that person can tap the Trapster map as they pass by to warn other Trapster users in the area. Traps can be categorized as live police, red-light cameras, mobile speed cameras, school zones, and more. (Trapster is available free for Android and iPhone.)

Next: Apps for Eating Out, Shopping, and Medical Uses

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