Walking Amman


I’ve been walking around Amman a little in the past couple of days. My poor sense of direction with the city’s somewhat haphazard street layout mean I make use of digital GPS maps on a regular basis. In Europe or North America, Google Maps is my service of choice, with due acknowledgement of their general creepiness.

But I discovered yesterday that Google Maps is pretty atrocious when walking around Amman. Either their data is old and of poor quality, or the algorithm for calculating time/distance between two points is not properly calibrated for a city with many hills. If you look on Google Maps’ display, you’ll see what looks like a flat terrain. Everything can seem very close. If you look out of the window, or walk on the streets, you’ll see that hills and a highly variable topography are very much a part of the experience of the city. (This gives some idea of it).

Google Maps knows how to deal with hills or variable terrain. After all, San Francisco, close to their centre of operations, is a pretty hilly city and I found the maps and the estimated timings worked pretty well when I was there last year. Which suggests to me that the problem isn’t that Google forgot to take into account topography but rather that the data is poor.

I’m studying data science-y things these days, so I thought a bit about how they might improve this data. Some possible solutions:

  1. They’re already monitoring all the data coming from app usage etc, so why not track whether its estimations match up with how long people actually take to walk certain streets/routes. Mix that in with the topography data, and average it all out.
  2. They could send out more cars. I don’t know how accurate the map data for driving in Amman is, but some anecdotal accounts suggest that it suffers from similar problems. This is probably too expensive, and I’m assuming it’d be preferable to find a solution that doesn’t require custom data collecting of this kind. Maybe something for when the world has millions of driverless cars all powered by Google’s software, but for now it’s impractical as a solution.
  3. Find some abstract solution based on satellite-acquired topographic data which takes better account of gradients of roads etc.

For the moment, Google Maps is pretty poor user experience as a pedestrian. Yesterday evening I was walking back home from the centre of town. The walk would, Google told me, take only 12 minutes. 40+ minutes later I arrived home.

Others have noted this same problem and suggested an alternative: OpenStreetMap data. The data is unattached to a particular app, but I downloaded one alongside the offline mapping data for Jordan/Amman. It seems pretty good at first glance, and I’ll be testing it out in the coming days. I’m interested o learn why it seems to perform better. My initial hypothesis is that its data is just better than that which Google Maps is using.