Crowdsourced: navigation & location-based services

toyosemite-mapOnce you switch the smartphone off from email and social media network, you can notice better when and how you’re crowdsourced. By this, I mean that use of applications to contribute data is sometimes clearer as the phone becomes less of communication technology and more of information technology (while most of the time it is an information and communication mixed together).

During my last year summer break, while switching off, I was able to notice three types of crowdsourcing that were happening as I was mostly using my phone for tourism:  the set of applications that I used during the period was mostly Google Maps, Waze, and Sygic for navigation (Sygic is an offline satnav app that uses local storage, especially useful as you go away from signal – as in the case of travelling to Yosemite above). I also used TripAdvisor to find restaurants or plan visits, and in a tour of Hollywood, we’ve downloaded a guided tour by “PocketGuide Audio Travel Guide”. There were also the usual searches on Google to find the locations of swimming pools, train schedule, boat tours and all the other things that you do when you’re travelling.

The first type of being crowdsourced that I knew was there but I couldn’t notice was with every action that I’ve done with the phone. Searches, visiting websites and all the other things that I’ve done as long as the phone was on. I know that they are there, but I have no idea who is collecting the traces – I can be quite certain that the phone company and Google were getting information, but I can’t tell for sure – so that’s hidden crowdsourcing.

The second type is being passively crowdsourced – I know that it happened, and I can sotosanjose-lastdayrt of guess what information is being recorded, but I didn’t need any action to make it happen. Checking the map on the way back to the airport at the end of the journey, show how geolocated images and information are being put on the map. Google Maps assume that I visited known locations, mostly commercials, along the way. It was especially funny to stay in a suburban place that happened to be the registered address of a business, and every time we went to it, Google insisted that we’re visiting the business (which doesn’t physically exist in the place). At least with this passive crowdsourcing, I am knowingly contributing information – and since I’m benefiting from the navigation guidance of Google Maps as I drive along, it is a known transaction (regardless of power relationship and fairness). screenshot_20160808-154540

the third and final type of process was active crowdsourcing. This was when I was aware of what I’m contributing, to which system, and more or less how. When I provided an image to Google Local Guides  I knew that it will be shared (I am though, hugely surprised how many times it was viewed, but I’ll write about Local Guides in a different post). I was also actively contributing to TripAdvisor about some place near Venice Beach. A certain surprise also came from Waze, which, in a day of experiencing Los Angeles famous traffic, provided me with a message that ‘I’m one of the top contributors on this route’ after 3 reports. Of course, I can’t tell if this message is real, but if 3 reports are enough to make you a top contributor, the number of reporting participants must be very low.

Few other observations: it was interesting to see how embedded is the consideration that you will be online all the time – Google Maps suggested to download a route when they had information that part of the journey will not be covered by mobile signal, but the application didn’t behave well with offline data (Sygic did). Both Waze and Google Maps behaved very erratically when I passed a blocked slip road and didn’t follow their navigation guidance. For quite a distance, they continue to suggest that I turn around and use the blocked road.

The other aspect that was very apparent is the built in methodological individualism of all these apps – even though I was only with my partner, we found the PocketGuide Audio Travel Guide awkward to use – we wanted to experience the tour (which is interesting) together. The app is just difficult to use when you try to go with other people and discuss things together. This is partially how phones are thought of, but touring is not only a solitary experience…

 

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Finding your way as a tourist

During the visit to Turin, I had an opportunity to experience the consequences of address matching and georeferencing which I’ve noted in the entry ‘British Museum Test’. After touring the city, I needed to get to a restaurant to meet colleagues that were staying in the Institute for Scientific Interchange (ISI) in Turin. The meeting place was the ‘Il Porto di Savona’ restaurant in Piazza Vittorio Veneto 2. Since the hotel room was connected to the Internet through a relatively slow ‘Swisscom Hospitality Service’ connection, I decided to try to find my way to the restaurant with Google Maps, which are the fastest to download.

My first attempt with Google was unsuccessful – trying to search for ‘Piazza Vittorio Veneto 2, Turin’ pointed me to a place 10 miles away from the city. The next attempt was with Yahoo! Maps, but this one could not find anything. Microsoft Virtual Earth failed to find the full name, but offered a location called ‘Piazza Vittorio’ which I selected, only to zoom in and discover that the full proper name does appear on the map! Using this name (‘Piazza Vittorio’) with Google also worked and it managed to find the location.

Turin Map Virtual Earth

Interestingly, because the connection was relatively slow, the interface of Microsoft was fairly annoying as parts failed to upload, and I was deterred from using Multimap as I’ve experienced slow response in the past on a fast broadband connection at home. Even so, checking more recently with Multimap shows that it will direct you to the wrong place in the city – although again, if you zoom to the map, the square is clearly mapped with its proper name…

The experience demonstrated how significant the problem of georeferencing is on these public mapping sites. This is a fundamental problem for these search engines to make them really usable. In this case, I used my knowledge of the range of public mapping sites, manipulated the address until I got the location and did a lot of things that, I suspect, a less experienced user would not do. I persevered with the problem because of my interest in usability and because it was an interesting problem. Actually, in terms of efficiency, it would have taken me less time to just go downstairs and ask the concierge…

Another aspect is that download time still matters. This is an aspect that web designers tend to ignore. I suspect that the assumption here is that broadband connections are ubiquitous. The speed of downloading a page is significant in geospatial applications – because there is no way round the fact that, unlike text based sites, the map is the most significant part and must be delivered as graphic files which tend to bulk-up the overall size of the page, as far as the end-user is concerned.

I must note that once I managed to find the location, it was again a pleasure to use the old style tourist map to navigate to and from the restaurant, which, by the way, I warmly recommend.

The joys of not knowing the way ‘home’

Map reading and navigation can be challenging – personally, finding my location on the map when touring a new place is not always easy. As a result, I thought for many years that having a device that could guide me ‘home’ would be really useful. Of course, away from home, ‘home’ may mean the hotel that I’m staying in. Today, it is possible to have such a device, as many smartphones are capable of finding their location and use services such as Google Maps.

A recent visit to Turin (Torino) made me rethink this view. The hotel I stayed in provided a typical tourist map (see example below) with a delightful depiction of the buildings in the centre of the city, clearly marked tourist attractions and, as always, some additional information on the back of the map.[ The map was produced by A&C e Turismo Torino ]

Turin Map - Small

Touring the centre of a new place is a very enjoyable activity, and I realised that I didn’t want to get from the hotel to the centre in the most direct and efficient way. I really enjoy in looking in shops, public buildings, markets and other urban features along the way. Also, the fact that the map covered a large area at ‘high information density’ (the amount of information per square inch of interface area), because the printing is 6 to 10 times denser than a computer screen and arguably 60 times the area that is covered by the best smartphone screen, enabled me to see the ‘big picture’ and to notice more or less where I was heading. Instead of navigation by following a specific street, I was using the map to provide me with the general direction.

Nothing of the above is new, but, when I consider my experience and the enjoyment of touring a city and compare it to the current provision in navigation devices, I can see how much they are capable of spoiling the enjoyment of getting lost. Maybe the smart compass, as suggested by Max Egenhofer, can be useful for keeping the experience without destroying the really enjoyable aspects of it.

For a more general comment in the same vein, see Don Norman’s discussion in the recent ACM ‘Interactions’ journal for a more general complaint about devices and services which can destroy certain human enjoyments.