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Finding My Way: Four Flawed Navigation Apps

Hamerschlag Hall is one of the principal teach...
Hamerschlag Hall is one of the principal teaching facilities of the Carnegie Institute of Technology (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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July 8, 2013 Deadline
August 2013 Issue

Finding My Way: Four Flawed Navigation Apps

Pittsburgh, like many older cities, was not designed on a grid. It wasn’t planned at all, according to one historian I’ve met. Instead, the roads were created as landowners divided and connected their properties. The hilly terrain complicated the hodgepodge streets, with some climbs steeper than those of San Francisco, resulted in winding roads that twist and turn so sharply a compact car can barely make the corners. Freeways start and stop with little warning, including Interstates 279 and 579.

This fall, I will be teaching as an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University, located in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. This summer, I’ve managed to miss freeway exits and one-way city streets nearly every trip into the city. The difficulty of navigating Pittsburgh, one local told me, is why people stay in their tight-knit neighborhoods. Oakland residents don’t venture to the South Hills, and the North Hills residents don’t trek to Shadyside. Third and fourth generation Pittsburghers get lost in the maze, so I stand little chance as an occasional visitor.

The reason my wife and I purchased smartphones was to use the map features when we traveled. We didn’t buy the phones to replace our iPods or to play Angry Birds; we wanted to get from one place to another while driving or while walking. Smartphones seemed like an ideal solution.

On my iPhone are several navigation apps: Apple Maps, Google Maps, MapQuest and Waze. Each one has failed me in a different and unexpected way. I now check two or three of the apps and assume if two of them agree, then I’m going in the right direction. That’s been a mistaken assumption, but better than trusting one map app.

Reviewing the apps in order of worst to best, without question the “crowdsourced” Waze might be the most useless app I’ve installed. Waze relies on users to update the maps, making it a visual Wikipedia. Personally, I’d rather have experts create maps because Waze is a mess.

According to Waze, our home in the country doesn’t exist. Despite reporting this error, Waze insists that my wife and I do not live near the wooded park we love. The app mistakenly locates me in one of the nearby communities, or in a community about four hours east of Pittsburgh with a similar name. Driving on the Interstate, Waze creatively offers exits that don’t exist and time estimates that are only accurate for time travelers. I keep the app, though, because it has a really cool real-time map that looks like a video game maze. So far, I lose each time I play the game.

If you want to locate restaurants, coffee shops or gas stations, nothing beats MapQuest… until you try to zoom in or out to see the map better. For some reason, the “pinpoints” don’t rescale or move with the map. Those restaurants I thought were on Fifth? They’re really over on Forbes. And, since Fifth is one-way, good luck plotting a new course. MapQuest has proved to be useful when I’m parked and walking, and then only if I don’t scroll or rescale the map. However, MapQuest can locate businesses and services that don’t appear on the much better Apple or Google maps. I end up copying the addresses I find in MapQuest and pasting them into one of the other navigation tools.

Apple and Google provide decent map apps for the iPhone. The streets are accurate, but finding what’s along the streets is hit and miss. When Apple first replaced Google Maps with another data source, there were some problems. But, based on my travels in several states, from Florida to New York in the last year, the two big navigation maps are equally mediocre. Not horrible, but far from great, Apple and Google can get you close to where you want to be, as long as you already have an address.

While working in Florida, Google managed to find dozens of “Target Store” locations, including an archery store. I tried to narrow the search with “department store” and “discount store.” No luck. I wanted one or two little red dots, not a dozen. Thankfully, MapQuest found stores quickly and accurately. I then pasted the addresses into Google Maps. But, Google didn’t mark which streets were one-way and didn’t seem to realize that “Cleveland Street” was the also “Route 41” in Fort Meyers.

The Apple Map app was better at locating major retailers, if only because it found so few of anything. Out of curiosity, I searched for “donuts” in Apple’s app and it located one of the three nearby donut shops. Since I had been walking several miles each night, I knew there were three donut shops, one at each end of my path and one in the middle. That’s very important data.

It wasn’t only donuts that confounded Apple. The navigation app located one of the two Target stores accurately. The other store didn’t exist in Apple’s data.

In Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Dayton, Buffalo and several other cities I’ve visited, the same pattern emerged. MapQuest locates the right stores, but in the wrong locations. Google locates anything and everything, making it hard to find the right thing. Apple doesn’t know all that exists, but at least the streets are marked more accurately than in any other app. Too bad Apple’s map app won’t show what’s along the streets, like the all-important donut shops.

To find destinations, I find myself asking clerks and waiters for directions. In the end, nothing beats a local’s knowledge.

Maybe a paid app from Garmin, Magellan or TomTom would be worth the expense if I traveled constantly, but dedicated navigation apps range from $35 to $70, and some of the best rated also charge an additional annual fee. Since navigation companies charge for their apps, they should be able to invest in better data, justifying the high prices. But, $70 seems expensive to me in an era of cheap applications.

Google and Apple need to fix their navigation apps. I’m sure we are not the only people to buy smartphones primarily to help navigate when traveling.

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