Tuesday, 26 July 2011

When Apps Attack

It's a clear, bright afternoon and I'm on a train heading out of Birmingham, on my way to collect a leased car from a business in Lichfield. Except that I'm not, quite. The address certainly contains the word ‘Lichfield’, but the business is actually in Fradley Park, a large industrial area a couple of miles outside of the city.

The ‘Nr’ abbreviation seems to be slipping from popular usage in addresses today, which is a shame as it can be an important little word if you are making your way to an address on foot or via public transport. Maybe it isn’t seen to matter so much now that we have sat-navs and mobile phone apps which only require a postcode to pinpoint an address.

But even postcodes can be deceptive if you take them at face value. Fradley Park has a Walsall postcode, although Walsall is even further away than Lichfield. And even when you have cut through the misleading parts of an address and found where it really is, there is still the capacity for further deceptions when you rely on mobile phone apps to tell you the best way to get there.

I originally set off from Warwick, having delivered a car there earlier in the day. My Trainline app told me, correctly, to catch a train to Moor Street and then walk over to New Street station for the Lichfield service. However, when calculating the earliest Lichfield train I would be able to catch, the app decided to allow forty-three whole minutes for me to walk between the stations. It did not mention that if I could cover the five hundred yards in less than twelve minutes I could catch an earlier service.

I am on the earlier service now.

Trent Valley station is on the right side of Lichfield for Fradley Park so I know I will be only about a couple of miles from the address. I put the postcode into my Google Maps app, which correctly locates the address, but labels the area as Alrewas, not Lichfield or Fradley. I then get it to work out the quickest walking route from the station. It comes up with a circuitous squiggle, almost four miles long. The A38 runs in a straight line out to Fradley Park, but the app has assumed that pedestrians cannot go that way. This would be a reasonable guess for most dual carriageways, but apps never tell you when they are just guessing. I know there is a pavement along one side of the A38 because I walked along it once, some years ago, to collect another vehicle from somewhere else on the industrial estate. The walk won’t be as pleasant as the stroll along country lanes that Google Maps had planned for me, but it won’t be half as long either.

Sometimes, if you are a long way from home and in an unfamiliar corner of the country then relying on these over-confident little chunks of software can seriously mess up your day. But today I don’t mind – I was only looking for confirmation of things I knew already. Nor do I mind that the address isn’t really in Lichfield, or Walsall, or Alrewas. I know exactly where it is, and it is a nice afternoon for a walk.