Why are sat-nav walking directions always so hopeless?

I'm a nonentity, get me out of here

rusted stairs descend onto footpath between highway and train track

Something for the Weekend, Sir? I stumble on a large root. At least that's what I think it is. For all I know, it could be a low fence, a rotting corpse or a very hardy badger. Some dodgy software has led me here, maybe some even dodgier software is waiting to mug me behind the next tree.

It's past 10pm, the moon's just ducked behind clouds and I can't see a thing. I'd activate the Torch utility on my smartphone but I doubt that part-illuminating the wood in Blair Witch Mode will relieve my growing anxiety.

That is, I think it's a wood. It was a park when I entered but after 10 minutes of walking, all the traffic noise seems to have died away. I keep still and listen intently for audible signs of civilisation over the rustling of the trees. Nope, all I hear is Goldilocks blowing on her porridge, Hansel whispering to Gretel, and the distinctive sounds of a bear having a shit.

Bloody sat-nav app.

At least when you're in a car and the GPS takes you down the wrong road, you're still on a road and you can turn back. But when you're a pedestrian, following the walking directions generated by mapping software can lead you absolutely anywhere: onto the hard shoulder of a motorway, to a bricked-off dead end, over a cliff, who knows?

It's like trying to order a cup of tea once you step outside British territory. Come on, you must know what I mean. If you don't, it goes like this:

Tea with milk, please. Yes, tea. What do you mean "What type of tea?" Just ordinary black tea. You've never heard of black tea? OK, show me what types of tea you have. 'Raspberry and fennel', no… 'beef and banana', no… 'braised slug provençal', no… ah here we go, 'breakfast tea', please. Thanks.

Hang on, you've given me a cup of lukewarm water. Where's the tea? Well, would you mind passing me the teabag? Yes, I do mean now, not when you have a minute. Sorry to be so particular but the tea is supposed to go in the water when it's hot. Or lukewarm.

Er… where's the milk? Yes, I asked for milk. Whoah, no need to steam it! Actually, yes, do heat it up, please, it might warm up the water. I don't care what you put the milk in. A cup, a jug, a gravy boat, a used fucking syringe, whatever, just hand it over now.

Thanks. Any sign of the tea bag yet? (etc…)

One day I will move abroad and open a tearoom specifically so that when someone orders an espresso, I can pour them a cup of hot water and, perhaps a minute later, pass them a handful of coffee beans. See how they like it, the bastards.

The problem I alluding to, though, is that cafés in Johnny-Foreignerland might have a few teabags behind the counter but nobody knows how to make tea because their goal is to serve you coffee, not tea. In the same way, Google Maps and the like can show you walking directions if you absolutely insist but they are principally designed for tearing up the tarmac on motorised transport. Those on foot have to put up with half-arsed mapping code Pritt-stuck together from a few curly brackets and semicolons found behind the programming sofa.

Worse, there are routing apps that go out of their way to make life worse for pedestrians. Motorists might regard Waze, for example, as a great way to locate minor road rat-runs but it arguably transforms sleepy village lanes into congested thoroughfares frequented by endless boy racers in search of alternative routes to bomb down without encountering police cars.

Thanks to "community-edited maps" (ie, edited by a virtual community of impatient motorists who live elsewhere), crossing the lane from your cottage to post a letter on the other side can be like playing Frogger, except with only one life.

Even when a mapping app purports to offer walking directions (permanently "in beta", note), it is done so shoddily you wonder if they're taking the piss. These apps have led me Theresa May-like across untracked wheat fields; forced me into high-jumping over fences; expected me to wade across fords and streams; directed me to creep along a thundering A road in the six-inch gap between the yellow line and a hedge.

Is it any wonder why people stagger about the pavement staring at their smartphones, occasionally bouncing off their similarly lost fellow pedestrians like bumper cars at the fairground? If walking routes were trustworthy enough that we didn't have to keep studying the real-time street map, we could all rely on concise directions buzzed through to our smartwatches. Because we all have those, don't we?

Hmm, I'm not sure that's going to work. Most of these watches are pretty small and won't be able to show much detail other than TURN LEFT AT THE… or TURN RIGHT WHEN YOU S… or FFS LOOK WHERE YOU'RE G…

One of my journalist colleagues advised me recently that when new emails flash up on his smartwatch, he knows immediately which are press releases because they always begin HI, I HOPE YOU ARE WELL… before being truncated. Of course, this can be intriguing too. Maybe the greeting continues and you can have fun guessing the remainder of the sentence, such as:

… ENOUGH TO GET OUT OF BED

… HEELED AND CAN LEND ME £20

… A WELL-A WELL-A HUH TELL ME MORE TELL ME MORE

… WICKED

… HUNG

My Fitbit often asks me if I'm well. Perhaps it's trying to send me press releases.

The Apple Watch goes to the other extreme, its Maps app stuffing heaps of extra information into the cute display in order to further enhance its illegibility. Not satisfied with TURN LEFT, it explodes into unnecessary verbosity along the lines of "In 40ft, proceed to Acacia Park Drive East" in a tiny font visible only to microbes, without telling you whether Acacia Park Drive East is on the left, right, straight on or indeed hovering 40ft somewhere above your head. Nor does it offer to help you out with measuring the specified 40ft given that you recklessly left your tape measure at home.

I'm told the difficulty with generating reliable walking directions in sat-nav software is the lack of official route data. Thus the app makes a guess based on aerial photos, customer suggestions and wild assumptions about the probable location of paths and pavements that turn out not to exist when you get there.

A bit of real-time AI might help. Earlier this year, some clever engineers at the University of Maryland found a way to make a drone pick a flying path through a narrow hole in a wall without providing it with prior routing data or requiring it to scan the entire area in 3D. Essentially, they force the drone to bumble around the entrance like an insect, checking out the shape and size of the hole, before gingerly nudging its way past rather than swooping directly through it like a bird.

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Although somewhat reminiscent of cult C-lister celebrity game show Hole In The Wall, the approach surely has applications in live route-mapping for those making their way on foot along unfamiliar terrain. If nothing else, it would have spotted that it was too dark to see anything and therefore not try to lead me to walk across a wooded park in the middle of the night.

Investors, give me a call. If I give this new pedestrian walking route app a cool name, we can cash in. I was thinking along the lines of a dyslexic hipster-style name like Waklr (sic) or, better still, one that will grab the attention of the mainstream media, such as Pedo.

Just picture it, me striding around public parks with my Pedo app clearly visible on my smartphone screen for all to see. I'm sure to attract a crowd.

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He transformed from a dedicated motorist into a determined pedestrian while trying to lose weight. Once in the city, he also finds he can travel more swiftly on foot than by bus or Tube. It's all in the waiting times, apparently. This has, of course, made him a right smug pain in the arse. @alidabbs



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