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Computers, Freedom, and Privacy

A walk with GPS reveals some of the problems with the system.

We were invited to a fundraising party on Monday to kick off the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference. Although our host recommended that we take a taxi, my friend Mark had a Garmin Nuvi 360 GPS, and it claimed to know the way. Mark, another journalist friend, and I went for a walk. The other friend had paper directions explaining how to get to our destination, but we decided to ignore that inferior fiber-based technology.

I had my own GPS as well, a cheaper Garmin Venture CX. Although my GPS is designed for hiking and Mark’s is for driving, I was astonished at how much better suited the Nuvi was for hiking around the city. Yes, it knew all the streets. It could navigate to where we wanted to go. It even had a “walking” mode whereby it knew that we could do pedestrian bridges and walk the wrong way down one-way streets.

Of course, my GPS cost something like $350 less than Mark’s.

The trip was fun, but long. Instead of being the 2.1 miles that the Nuvi claimed at the outset, by the time we reached our destination, my GPS told me that we had walked a good 3.5 miles. And we ended up walking through some very sketchy neighborhoods. We walked by buildings with broken glass, by a building that was either a soup kitchen or a rehab center (with a long line of men standing outside), two clusters of kids just hanging out on the street, and then, near our destination, a group of seven kids walking in the middle of the street, some of them carrying “walking sticks” and the like.

Mark missed most of this, of course, because he was fiddling with the GPS most of the time we were walking. And I kept fiddling with my GPS, trying to convince myself that it was good enough for my needs. Yes, I had a case of GPS inferiority. My GPS had a lousy base map; Mark’s GPS had high-quality street-level detail, navigation, and even text-to-speech for speaking the names of the streets as we walked by them. (This is useful when you are driving, to be sure, but not terribly useful when you are trying to outrun a gang of kids in hoodies.) On the other hand, I got a nice dotted map of where we had been and the odometer.

I was also impressed at how sleek and compact the Nuvi is, although it lacks that all-important lanyard, which is so useful when you are on foot. The Nuvi will also charge off USB; my Venture CX takes AAs (but it runs for nearly 24 hours on a charge, rather than just 3 to 5).

Finally, we reached our destination: an intersection by a highway in the middle of a burnt-out industrial zone near a canal. We could hear rushing water through a manhole cover. But we couldn’t find the party.

I took out my Treo 700p and pulled up a copy of Google Maps (Google now has a very nice Palm application). I typed in our destination’s address, and it gave us the same location. I guess the Navteq data is wrong.

We finally ended up calling our host, who came and got us in his oversized black SUV. Apparently, we were on the opposite side of the block from him–we had walked by his “apartment,” which we learned was really a loft in an old industrial building. He told us that Google Maps just didn’t know where he lived. Which means that the Nuvi didn’t know either, since the data all comes from the same source.

In retrospect, what’s really interesting is this: when the technology failed us, we didn’t look around to see where we were and search for street signs. Of course, at that point we were standing in the middle of a barren junkyard wasteland. But we were actually on the right street, just at the wrong location. If we had walked back a quarter mile, we would have ended up at the right location. And if we had then looked at the paper directions, we would have been able to find our way to the party.

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