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Big cities prove apt for apps

By Steve Mollman

  • Big cities like New York prove great places for innovative apps
  • Augmented reality games and location-based service are popular
  • Developers use tech-friendly cities to test out apps that enhance local life

(CNN) -- It's a good time to have an iPhone, be moderately geeky and live in New York.

That's because loads of iPhone apps have come out that make the urban experience more rewarding. And it's not just iPhone apps. A slew of tech offerings are improving life, work, and getting around in big cities.

That might be said of some smaller cities and towns as well, but major cities have among other advantages the population densities and demographics many app developers target (or at least target first).

"We knew that our GPS games would be focused on areas with the largest density of iPhone users in order to capture the greatest possible market," reports James Kane, creative producer at Bulpadok, which developed a location-based iPhone game called The Hidden Park.

The family-oriented game superimposes cartoonish characters over a city park. You can't see the characters in real life, but if you look at the park through your iPhone screen, you'll find them hanging out in particular spots.

It's one of many augmented reality games and apps for cities. The game, like a lot of new city-centric mobile apps, takes advantage of the iPhone's A-GPS and other location-oriented features, like a built-in compass.

Competing smart phones, including BlackBerrys and handsets using Google's Android platform, are seeing more urban-friendly apps as well.

The Yelp app, for multiple platforms, lets you find reviews of restaurants in your immediate vicinity. Another app called WideNoise, for the iPhone, lets you measure the noise pollution where you are and compare that to other parts of the city.

Foursquare is a fast-growing social media app that lets you notify friends whenever you check in to a venue like a bar, cafe or restaurant. You can use it to hook up with friends, write or read tips about a place, or compete to become a venue's "mayor" by going to it more than anyone else.

Augmented reality apps in particular should enhance urban life in coming years, with the ability to view all kinds of buildings and objects through a gadget's screen to get an overlay of information about them.

For instance an upcoming app called Worksnug will allow users to see reviews of Net cafes they're pointing their iPhone screen at, describing the kind of wi-fi access, noise levels, and coffee quality they'd find inside. Wikitude, an Android app, already gives users Wikipedia info on landmarks they're viewing.

City governments are getting in on the action, too, encouraging new apps and services by opening data and application program interfaces (APIs) for developers. New Yorkers can get government tweets on their phones that update them on, for instance, holiday parking regulations.

Citizens Connect is an iPhone app designed to let Bostonians snap pics of neighborhood nuisances and email them to the government. Residents can report things like potholes, trash violations and broken street lamps.

Residents of Washington, D.C. get a similar capability in an application called Social DC 311. The application, which has Facebook and iPhone versions, was the winner in a contest encouraging developers to use datasets and APIs that the city made freely available.

Many cities (though still too few, some argue) are opening data streams so that, among other things, developers can create nifty apps with them.

San Francisco offers such streams at The hope is for more useful tools like EcoFinder, an iPhone app that helps residents find nearby recycling centers. There are a number of mobile apps designed for the city rail system, including for BART in the San Francisco Bay Area, which also opened its data to developers.

These apps help with things like trip-planning and late arrivals. Other cities have similar offerings.

But citizens don't necessarily need government help to navigate municipal services: with the right platform, they can help each other.

Clever Commute lets commuters in New York and other U.S. cities work as a group and SMS or email each other about delays on rail, bus, or ferry lines. Its crowd-sourced alerts are often more timely and useful than official ones.

The site EveryBlock (recently acquired by MSNBC) combines government data and other content and brings it down to the city-block level. Restaurant inspections and police calls sit next to things like reviews of local businesses.

Big cities' tech advantages extend beyond apps. They're also more likely to host cutting-edge business lounges, Net cafes, connectivity, and other services.

Telepresence rental suites have been cropping up in big-city hotels. Groups like Marriott, Taj, and Starwood (including Sheraton, Westin, and W) offer such suites, or plan to soon. Rates can start at about $500 per hour and go up from there. Companies based in a hotel's vicinity are a major target customer.

For some Singaporeans, the Geek Terminal is like a second office and technology showroom. They can try new gadgets, computers and services, plus hook in to innovative power strips and fast Net access.

Because vendors use the cafe as a showcase--in prime business real-estate--much of what it offers is free of charge, or costs very little.

In big cities you're also more likely to find services like tech-savvy bike-sharing schemes, such as Bicing in Barcelona, for which there's an iPhone app.

Of course big cities have always been where new ideas circulate and more minds are open to them. That's one aspect of city life that hasn't changed.

"If you want to find a tech-savvy audience that is open to new ideas," notes Kane, "then focusing on urban centers is the logical place to start."