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Satellites and Soup Nazis: The Trials and Tribulations of Using GPS in a Smartphone Tour

My first attempt to build a smartphone tour was an abject failure. I used a framework that I thought was fantastic until I started testing my own product. Then the app had me walking into duck ponds, slamming into concrete barricades, and becoming entangled in rose gardens. Not good!

The problem was that both the framework developer and I tried to get too fancy. We were using the device’s Geographic Positioning System (GPS) to guide us from one point of interest (POI) to the next. Under normal circumstances that technique would have worked great. After all, most of use GPS in our cars to direct us from one point to the other, with Google Maps, Waze and the like, and for the most part those apps work great. But alas, these were not normal circumstances.

The tour site was in Washington DC, in and around memorial parks and the White House. If you’ve been there you know: It’s a labyrinth of meandering foot paths, sometimes crossing busy city streets. There are buildings all around, and there is security…lots of security. Park police, city police, the Secret Service and probably a few special ops guys are in the field protecting the president of the United States and other important dignitaries. Should the president decide to pop out of the White House for a latte, several motorcades of black SUVs race through the city, all but one of which are decoys. Security personnel are constantly moving barricades based one what is happening at the time, and there is always something happening in DC.

Of course none of these changes were communicated to me, as I am apparently not on the Secret Service’s distribution list. Thus my app would direct the tourist to “turn left, go down the stairs, turn right, go straight, and look left” when that could very well put our hapless tourist in a newly formed high security zone, not to mention a shiny set of hand cuffs. I would learn of these navigational changes during countless road trips to DC to test the app…a four hour round trip without traffic, and there is always traffic.

The framework developers were a bit picky about communicating changes: They all had to be submitted by email. Have you seen the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld? Yeah, it was kinda like that. Each time changes were needed, I would have to write them up in detail, sometimes using Google Earth for clarity, and respectfully submit the changes to the developers, with a bow. Then they would have to recompile the modified app for both the iPhone and Android and resubmit it to the app stores. This was a painful process for everyone involved except the president, who was blissfully laid back in his air conditioned SUV sipping a Chai latte.

Then there were the ghosts.

“Ghosts?” you say.

Yes. GPS signals have a tendency to bounce around a bit in dense urban areas, sometimes becoming inaccurate by several meters. Misleading signals, or “false positives,” imply there is something there when there isn’t, hence the term “ghosts.” In an environment where even a few inches can mean the difference between seeing the Signer’s Memorial or having a shoe full of duck poo, ghosts are not welcome.

About the 100th time I had to approach the Soup Nazis, we grew exasperated and fired each other. Between the ghosts and the path changes, there were just too many changes to keep up with, and being European, they could not fathom why it was happening. Keep in mind that in their country roads follow the cow paths paved by the Romans 3,000 years ago. Things don’t change that much, so they had a “set it and forget it” mentality that was embedded in their framework design. But it just weren’t workin’ out here in ‘merica.

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