iPhone gets downright neighborly
May 13, 2010 by cynthia
We’ve been so busy using smartphones to weave ourselves into the virtual community, we may not have noticed that the real world has quietly joined the party. Local apps are quickly becoming some of the most realtime, on-the-ground useful of all.
Glassland (AKA Portland) is well-known as a mobile town and has a rich inventory of local apps, but I’d be willing to bet your town (or at least your state) has at least a few of its own. A search on “San Francisco,” for example, shows 335, but even a search for “Cape Girardeau” (Missouri) uncovered two. I thought I’d run down those I’ve found for Portland, just as a sample. If you live in a tech-rich area, chances are you’ll find similar tools.
And I apologize in advance; I’m trying to make this a mostly comprehensive list so it’s loooong.
The easiest way to find local apps is to visit the iTunes store, search on your town’s name, and select “Apps” from the results filter (below). If you don’t get the results you’re looking for, try searching for your state, county or well-known nearby institutions. Click on the “See All” link to see the whole inventory; right now a search on “Portland” turns up 95 of the little beasts.
Curiously, I rarely (as in just about never) find local apps on the “jailbreak,” i.e., non-iTunes sites like App Store Apps.
This isn’t the only way to streamline community access; the best service and productivity apps will default to local databases and encourage comments, reviews and the like from locals. The real estate appraisal tool Zillow, for example, starts with your current location and lets you “favorite” spots in your area, as does the exercise tracker I Map My Ride (both free). WineTrip ($0.99) can be localized for greater Portland metro vinery experiences.
Often (and not surprisingly) those apps are more polished than the homegrown variety. And there’s still LOTS of room for new local apps if anyone’s interested; for example, I’d love to find a local farmers market listing, a comprehensive restaurant reviewing system, or an interest-specific events tracker. Mobile apps are usually faster than traveling to a conventional website for the same info, so I think there’d be a market. Still, the Portland-local apps that do exist are fun and often useful.
City of Portland Citizen Reports (free). Ever hit a pothole and wish you could complain to City Hall? In Portland, there’s an app for that–you can send a message to the city engineers about graffiti, busted traffic lights and issues with parks. The app makes good use of the iPhone’s camera and GPS locating services.
Whether it actually gets fixed is another matter (I’m told the response rate is pretty good but haven’t followed one up myself), but it’s still a very convenient way to report trouble.
Drivers licenses. Wanna cram for your driver’s license test in the doctor’s waiting room? DMV Test Prep Oregon ($2.99) offers sample tests you can take right from your iPhone, explains what you got wrong and keeps a record of your test scores.
Oregon State Lottery (free). Concerned that you might have missed out on big bucks? This app reports the results of the latest lottery drawings.
Portland Art Museum (free). If you’re into art, this may be one of the best values on the list. It beats the Louvre’s iPhone app all to pieces, giving you about a year’s worth of upcoming events, current info about hours and free days and some really interesting video discussions of different items in the Portland Art collection (apparently they’re developing these videos in conjunction with SmartHistory, which is itself one of the best online art resources I’ve found).
The app also includes maps of this very confusing space, with easy-to-follow directions. The navigation is thoughtfully planned, although I wish they’d shoehorn GPS navigation into it so I could find myself on those maps. Also, it would be useful to include categorized searches, i.e., of work, type, collection, etc., so I could discover where they’re hiding the glass.
PDX Transit ($1.99). There are at least seven apps to help you manage Portland’s public transportation systems, but Jacob Bandes-Storch’s remains my favorite. It uses the GPS navigation to find the nearest bus, train or streetcar stops, helps plan your route, and tells you when the next one’s arriving. It also reports on detours or delays.
Multicam Portland ($0.99). This app’s a little clunky, but gives you a view through ODOT traffic cameras, keeping you apprised of traffic conditions on major thoroughfares in Portland and Vancouver. Since we’ve got some major bridge construction closures right now (you should have SEEN the I5 traffic on Mother’s Day), this one is coming in handy. There’s a new one out, RoadCam Oregon ($1.99), which lets you choose cameras by map instead of list. It also seems to cover a broader area than Multicam, so ultimately might be the better bet.
I know of two other apps that help you navigate traffic jams and construction beyond the Portland/Vancouver metro area: iOn Traffic Oregon ($1.99) and I5 (free), which covers the whole interstate in Washington, Oregon and northern California. Both are too clunky for local traveling, IMHO, but they might be useful for longer distances. And many of the local media apps contain some kind of traffic report.
Emergency Radio ($2.99). Traffic was absolutely jammed at Pioneer Square one afternoon last summer and nobody seemed to know what was happening. I whipped out my iPhone, opened Emergency Radio, and had the whole story in about two minutes. (Some idiot sicced two pitbulls on armed, horseback-mounted police officers, one officer was down; Portland police and about 200 horse lovers were, er, enthusiastically searching for the perp).
Strictly speaking, this isn’t a local app; it lets you into police scanners, EMS, NOAA weather, coast guard reports, fire dispatch, railroad, air traffic and just about every other emergency monitoring broadcast throughout the world. But it offers 44 different feeds in Oregon alone, with several in the greater Portland metro area, and the weather news in particular can be useful.
How useful this would be in a real disaster is debatable; AT&T’s coverage isn’t stellar at the best of times, and if the electricity goes out your iPhone will be out of juice within a few hours. But it’s still useful for everyday crises.
I was surprised that more local businesses don’t use apps to market their wares, not even the big guys like Fred Meyer. Chains do; Target, Best Buy, Whole Foods, Nike, Old Navy, Macys, Starbucks and Tommy Hilfiger all have apps that can be localized to some degree, and might let you check sales, verify inventory or even place orders.
Local (and favorite) sustainability grocery store New Seasons has one, but…love the store, hate the app. The clunky interface offers info on in-store specials, but in the time it takes to move through the menus and actually find something worthwhile, you could just about drive to the store. It also sports a store locator but, frankly, if you know enough to shop at New Seasons in the first place, you already know where the stores are. It doesn’t allow you to place orders online, which would speed up the wait at their wonderful deli counter, and it doesn’t tie in with their home delivery service.
Real estate firms have their own apps, too. Locally, Hasson Realtors offers a nice home sale app, as does Soldera Properties (both free). Neither, though, seem to offer a complete picture of homes for sale in the Portland area–they don’t include for-sale-by-owners, for example. This might be one area where a home computer is more useful.
Forkfly (free) is one of those discount-coupon book deals translated to iPhone. The goal is to teach you about Portland merchants and restaurants you might not find on your own, and they offer discounts to get you in the door. It might be a pretty good deal but right now there’s not much content, and not much incentive to keep it on my iPhone.
Food & fun
Food Trucker ($0.99). If you believe that all they serve in lunch wagons these days is microwave burritos and soggy ham sandwiches, think again. You can actually get some pretty good eats from food trucks, and Clayton Kane is traveling the country, trying to find them all. He tweets his experiences, he’s pretty thorough, and he apparently spent quite a bit of time recently in Portland.
The downside, though, is what happens when he moves on. He keeps it current, hopefully, through commenters’ tweets and retweets about their own finds. The problem, though, is that the tweets I’ve seen don’t always stick to the point, and plowing through miles of them to find one edible nugget is tedious. Still, I’ve already found some cool places for lunch. Another one, StreetEats (free), includes Portland with the added bonus of New York trucks (I do believe I’ve died and gone to heaven), and is free.
Speaking of food, there are a number of restaurant-related apps that let you order ahead or make reservations. BigAss Sandwiches has one that lets you specify mustard or bechamel sauce and easily repeat favorite orders. For a more comprehensive look, Cocktail Compass (free) seeks out the best bars and happy hours in town. Many of my favorite Portland restaurants offer incredible deals on good food during happy hour, so if you’re willing to dine early you can get some nice deals.
The sorta-iconoclastic Portland Mercury owns Cocktail Compass, and it’s a great idea. It lets you use all kinds of criteria to find food and drink in your area, you can save your favorites, and there’s a little button to call the closest cab if your designated driver pooped out on you. But the information presented is minimal; since I’m less interested in booze than in cheap happy hour food and its price, I need to know what’s on the menu. All Cocktail Compass tells me is “cheap eats.”
Brew reviews. Portland is, as I’ve said, a beerdrinker’s paradise, and a number of iPhone apps will help you find just the right brew. Try BrewTour Oregon (free), which says its list of breweries, pubs and hops farms is comprehensive and offers a paid upgrade that lets you create your own beer rating system. BeerSignal (free) takes a slightly different approach: It lets you collect favorite pubs, orders and drinking buddies and send out tweets when it’s time for the next round.
Movies. There are plenty of ways to find movie times with an iPhone’s native apps, but Portland Movie Listings (free) lets you find a nearby theater, browse its movies and peek at synopses, and offers a little celebrity gossip. Portland Movie Times ($0.99) does pretty much the same thing without the gossip. Neither let you actually buy the tickets in advance, which would be useful.
And if you want to be just an utter groupie, MovieTours Oregon ($2.99) reveals locations and photos of homes, businesses and landmarks of popular movies made in Portland. Personally, I’d hate to own Bella’s house from the Movie Twilight, but hey…
Portland Pinball ($0.99). OK, it’s a little odd, but with pinball machines going the way of the dinosaur, this is actually quite a useful application for those of us still addicted to them. It’ll find the nearest available pinball emporium, tell you what machines are there, and give you directions.
Portland Speed Date (free). Uhm…you’ve got to be kidding. No? This app lets you zero in on potential dates by age and type, try some safe flirting online and hookup when you can’t get to a computer. It’s the mobile version of SpeedDate.com, a fee-based dating service, I guess for people in a hurry. Hmmm. I’ve met some ladies who have a drive-up mobile dating service downtown by the bus depot, but that might not be the same thing….
Sports apps. There are a bunch dealing with basketball and baseball and all kindsa stuff. Since I have the same level of interest in ball-involved games that I do in, say, the history of moldy cheese rinds, I’ll let you find the sports apps yourself.
Travel apps. For the most part, I steer clear of these–for heaven’s sake, I live here. And they tend to be more expensive than the average iPhone app–Portland Essentials, from Sutro Media, is $2.99. I would be interested in one that had good restaurant reviews, but most of the apps I’ve tried offer reviews that are barely past the visitors’ guide stage. These apps are still cheaper than a guidebook…but with all the free Web resources out there for travelers, what’s the point?
Personally, I tend to favor apps that give me stuff I can’t get through other sources, especially when I’m mobile, and I have to admit that most local news stations disappoint on that score. Most news organizations in the Portland metro area have an iPhone app that pretty much regurgitates whatever’s on the website and many have performance issues that make reading the news excruciating. There’s rarely anything so urgent that I need to eat iPhone bandwidth to find it. (And if it is, it’ll probably show up on Emergency Radio…or I’ll get to a TV or Web bloody quick)
There are a few exceptions, however: Lane Powell Legal Updates (free), comes from a local law firm and provides a really nice digest of important legal actions in the northwest and elsewhere in the US, including controversial cases in environmental law, health care and real estate. And in keeping with Portland’s strong environmental bent, Natural Oregon (free) consolidates ecoreporting throughout the Northwest.
All of Nature ($3.99). Can’t tell the difference between bladderwort and hogswart? This app is essentially a northwestern US fieldguide in a phone, and it covers birds, plants, animals and other natural phenomena. While you’re out there enjoying nature, you can use Tippet ($0.99) to help you figure out which fishing line and fly to use.
College life. I haven’t tried iLifestyle Portland ($2.99), although I unearthed it for a friend who’s supposed to let me know how it works. Portland Lifestyle targets college students in the Portland downtown area with news of parties, events and campus maps. They also have a one-click access to campus police if you get into trouble. Exactly which campus, they don’t say, so I’m assuming all of them. Similarly, Oregon Campus ($0.99), provides maps and directions for all Oregon State University campuses–there are actually several campus map apps.