Sunday, February 12, 2006

Franchise-based Online Mapping

There are few experiences in life more stressful than navigating an unfamiliar city. Services such as Google Maps have made this somewhat easier by combining beautiful user interfaces with simple directions. All these services are based on data from a few mapping companies whose employees drive every road in America each year, making note of lane mergers, stop signs, and dead-end streets, all correlated with differential GPS accurate to inches. The services that use this data give directions that are resultantly almost military in precision: "Drive 1.1 miles, turn right on Martin Luther King Expressway, go .9 miles" etc. This would be a fine state of affairs if we conducted all our unfamiliar driving in the dead of night, with 20/15 vision and a zen-like focus on the green and white signs that validate the directions Google et al. see fit to provide. Unfortunately that is almost never the case, and human beings recognize as much.

Human-provided directions tend toward including landmarks, and are more likely to include visual descriptions (especially, research has shown, directions given by females). But while a resident of your new city might know that there's a giant red warehouse just before the road you need, Google isn't likely to. If only there were a way to proxy for recognizable landscape features... as a matter of fact there is. Lamentable or not, cities of any size are now packed full of nationally popular chain stores and restaurants. Happily, the most stressful places to drive -- high traffic thoroughfares -- are also the most likely to attract franchises with consistent and recognizable signage. Instead of counting distances along a highway to the tenth of a mile (which is unlikely to be useful to anyone this side of Von Neumann), Google could tell you to take a left two blocks past the third McDonald's, then turn right after the Holiday Inn. The businesses themselves are architecturally distinct, and their signs are elevated dozens of feet above the roadway, blasted with stadium-grade electric lighting, and made orders of magnitude larger than the street signs harried travelers would otherwise have to search for.

These national chains are also likely to have consistent nomenclature, which makes mapping, say, all the McDonald'ses, Wendy'ses, and Burger Kings in the nation a trivial affair for a company like Google, which already has copious amounts of directory information. In fact there is already a Google Maps Mashup that helps you locate the nearest fast-food restaurant. Factored into plain-language directions, the chain-store uiformity that we decry for monotonizing the American landscape could make the American landscape much easier to navigate. Sure this isn't going to help you pick one street in a residential neighborhood (unless your neighborhood is lucky enough to feature a McDonald's!). But using street names to navigate is much easier when you're driving 20 miles per hour through the garden district than when you're driving at 40 miles per hour down an eight-lane boulevard. Just a thought - listening, Google?