Two weeks ago I received a frantic call at night from my wife saying she took a wrong turn on her way home and was lost.
She had attended an evening work event at a location near downtown Savannah and driven to an area that she was not familiar with. Instead of turning left to get onto the interstate to head west, she took a right. The next thing she knew, she had crossed the Talmadge Bridge and was somewhere in South Carolina.
It was dark, raining, and she was all alone. There were no road signs she could see to identify her location.
As I jumped into my car to head over the bridge and look for her, I tried to get her to open up her Google Maps app on her smartphone. There she would see a map of her location and with just a couple of swipes be able to use the built-in GPS to navigate her way home.
At this time though, she was practically having a panic attack, and to make matters worse, her phone battery was dying. I lost contact with her for about 20 minutes.
The story has a happy ending, as she was able to locate signs to find her way back home, but the experience, painful for both of us, got me searching for a better way.
Parents of teenagers have known for years of smartphone apps that keep track of a child’s location. These can also be used for directionally-challenged spouses and elderly family members. This column will show you how, for free, to use technology to keep a watchful eye on your loved ones.
Browse through the Apple IOS or Google app stores and you’ll find numerous apps allowing you to create a circle of friends and/or family that can monitor each other’s movements. For those thinking that these types of apps are creepy, allowing you to secretly stalk others or give up your privacy, keep in mind that all users must accept the invitation to participate and may deactivate the devices at any time.
Seeing such names as Family Locator, GeoZilla GPS Locator, Glympse, GPS Phone Tracker and Gramplify, it looked like it was going to be tough to choose the right app, but a co-worker suggested to me the one she uses with her family, and as it turns out, it’s the biggest, most popular and best-rated app available.
It’s called Find My Friends. It’s available on both IOS and Android platforms, and is free.
I downloaded and installed the app for my phone first, and then did the same for my wife’s phone. On my phone I was asked to invite others into my “circle” – in this case I only wanted my wife. The app generated a code that was sent to her phone. Once she accepted, she was part of my “circle.”
Like most apps, before starting use, it will ask you to accept a number of permissions, like giving it access to your GPS system. Because this app keeps track of your movements, some may fear that providing this to an unknown company is dangerous. I don’t worry about these things, but if you do, it’s probably better not to install it.
Every time I open the app I see a map showing the location of where my phone is, and the location of my wife’s phone. If I did not make it clear earlier, the GPS device is your phone, and if you don’t take your phone with you and keep it powered on, it won’t help others know your location.
Once the person in your circle moves, either walking or by car, it will show their movement in real-time. See as they leave one location, travel down the road and park their car. The accuracy of their location is remarkable, pinpointing it to a specific parking space.
If I had this app installed when my wife got lost that night, I would have immediately detected her location from my phone. Furthermore, even if her battery died, (and therefore the phone was turned off), it records the last location before power is lost and would have given me a general location.
The app provides a number of other features such as a “check in” button where if two or more people wanted to really stay in touch and alert others of their location, they can click on that button and report their spot to others in their circle.
There are also automatic notifications that can be sent out without the person lifting a finger. There are notifications when someone reaches their destination, if they turn off their phone, or need help in an emergency.
The free version of the app maintains a 2-day record of every place you go. One can view a detailed map watching the person go from point A to B. It even records the maximum speed of their car during that trip. I can see how this can be valuable to a parent monitoring their kid’s driving.
The optional paid version gives you some added features, including a longer record of your past destinations and issuing crash detection/emergency response notifications.
Because the app is regularly detecting your location and using your GPS, you will notice your phone’s battery being depleted a little faster. It wasn’t anything that was a deal-breaker with me, but was noticeable nonetheless.
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