Friday, 5 June 2015

What goes into an iWalk

You may have noticed that there is a lag between photos from walk testing appearing on social media, and the finished walk being published. It typically takes around three months for each walk to go through the “production” process; the photos on social media are usually from mid-way through that process. The reason that it takes this long is partly that we are usually working on several at once, and below is an outline of some of the work that goes into each one.

Where to go

As you’d probably guess, the first step is to plan a route. In doing so, we juggle a number of factors which are sometimes pulling in opposite directions:

  • A circular walk, where at all possible, so that you don’t need to double back along the same route
  • Availability of parking near the start of the walk
  • Placing steeper terrain towards the beginning of the walk so that it gets easier as you get more tired
  • Placing the terrain likely to involve more exploring (e.g. beaches) in the first half of the walk when you have more energy
  • Incorporating the best views, which are sometimes more impressive in one direction than the other
  • Ending the walk near somewhere with refreshment such as a pub
  • Minimising the amount of road used
  • Offering a range of locations, landscapes and lengths to suit different tastes and abilities... and weather!

In the field

Three separate “site visits” follow to geolocate, write and test directions and survey the area:

  • On the first time around the route, the directions are drafted and geolocated. In some cases, we may take the route “back to the drawing board” if we weren’t entirely happy with the initial test (such as in the photo).
  • On the second time around a route, we test that the directions and positions are correct and refine these.
  • The third visit is an independent test of the directions by a person who didn’t write them and, if any inaccuracies are found, grovelling and correction by the person who did.

As the app will warn you if you go off-route, we also note “legitimate” deviations from the route such as visiting a cliff castle on a headland or a beach to ensure these don’t result in unwanted nagging by the app.

As well as the directions, we note wildlife of interest including locations of impressive displays of flowers, or plants suitable for foraging.

We also note types of land use and livestock present so we can identify relevant countryside information. For example, behaviour around livestock to make farm environments less intimidating to less experienced walkers and with the intention of making farmers’ lives a little easier by providing walkers with limited experience in the rural environment with in-the-field guidance on how best to behave. Youthful experiences of being chased with a female accomplice across a field by a farmer with an electric cattle prod suggest that imaginative uses for hay barns might also come into this category!

Educate, Inform and Entertain

Based on the locations covered by the route and our observations, we research the history of the area, and the natural history we find there. This generates reams of information, including PhD theses and academic papers, which would be mind-numbingly dull, jargon-laden and overwhelming to include even excerpts from in the walks. There is therefore a lot of sifting and de-geeking to be done to arrive at the “interesting bits” that are informative whilst hopefully being enjoyable to read.

Making driving somewhere unfamiliar a little easier

To make it easier to get to the walk, the longitude and latitude of the car park are collected and included in the app so the “navigate” button can use a little bit of software that we wrote to fire up Google Navigator, or Apple’s equivalent, to get you to the car park. We were quite surprised to find over 10,000 other app developers have also found a use for that software component since we released it Open Source.

The nearest postcode to the car park is also collected for use with in-car sat-navs and, finally, driving directions using road signs are included for “old school” navigation in the many areas of Cornwall where satnavs that rely on a data connection struggle because there is no 3G signal.

Other reference information to accompany the walk is also gathered such as OS explorer map numbers, bus timetables and the nearest tidal prediction location for tide times which in some cases can also influence the choice of parking!

GPS-accurate cartography

Through field testing, we refine the route geolocation so that it often ends up more precisely located and more up-to-date than the footpaths shown on OS Explorer maps. When you purchase an OS map, it can be up to 7 years out of date (based on a 5 year survey cycle, publishing time, and sale of old stock) and subtle inaccuracies (such as a footpath being shown on the wrong side of a field boundary) can fall through the net of the OS surveys altogether. We therefore endeavour to keep the route on the correct side of the wall from the slurry pit!

Once the route is finalised, we draw the map used in the apps to provide GPS-accurate reference points including field boundaries, paths and tracks joining or crossing the route. We also geolocate points of interest as accurately as possible so you can see your position and direction you are facing relative to them when using the app.

Finding a walk that interests you

Sifting through nearly 200 walks would be “bleddy ‘ellish”, so the walks are classified in many different ways to make it possible to find walks that appeal. This includes locality, type of scenery, and several dozen other criteria such as whether there is a pub, beach, bluebells in season etc.

Alternative and adjacent walks are also tagged to make it more convenient to pick a longer/shorter/purely-coastal alternative or to join two routes together to make a longer route.

There is no such thing as finished

As well as adding new walks, we are also constantly updating our existing ones, adding new classifications and information that we find, or updating the directions and route if a footpath has been altered by e.g. the building of new housing. As well as doing this from our own observations, some of this is kindly fed back by people who have recently done a walk to whom we are extremely grateful for helping us to improve the walks for everyone else.

You can feed back suggestions or corrections by email to info@iwalkcornwall.co.uk, message us on facebook or twitter. If you'd like to share your photos or experiences, we welcome posts on our facebook page or tweet to us on twitter.