Will Personal Navigation Solutions work in India?

Monday November 15, 2010,

6 min Read

Personal Navigation
  • Most people in India have a skeptical view of automated personal navigation services and solutions (like that of personal navigation devices, Location based services on mobile phones and web based services) for directions, maps, points of interest … The skepticism is justified for many reasons:The roads and streets are not clearly ordered or named. Most of them are narrow, do not have signs and don’t meet at right angles to provide easy directions. There is no structure to the numbering system either; the same place can have multiple numbers – from when it was plotted for development to initial built-up to the final version. All these numbers continue to be valid and used by people.
  • Unlike the developed countries, navigation 1.0 (aka printed paper maps) was not used in large numbers   by folks in India. In developed countries, the transition from printed maps to digital maps and then to sophisticated navigation devices became a natural process. Not so much here.
  • The social element – Given the lack of quality data and the dis-inclination to read through maps, it really pushes one to stop and ask others for directions. With the strong local knowledge that people have, you are typically guaranteed with the best possible route to your destination, further reiterating the model.

So, the prognosis looks pretty bad, doesn’t it? Well not so fast. India has seen several substantial changes in the last 5 years that we need to rethink the above mentioned hypothesis.

  • Firstly, the cities have expanded significantly – often 2X to 3X in area. New roads were built. Some roads became one-way streets. New communities and tall buildings have come up at a stunning pace that it has become hard for people to really keep up – the grey matter has its limit. So, the strong local knowledge, a key ingredient for “ask-and-you-will-know” model started to break.
  • Secondly, people started becoming mobile. Traveling for leisure, business and adventure has increased exponentially in the last few years. As more and more population becomes mobile, the need for some form of automated guidance (maps, web based directions …) began to rise.
  • Thirdly, the Indian map data has gotten much better. From Google’s maps and satellite views to MapMyIndia’s data, the quality of Indian maps have improved substantially.
  • Finally and importantly, for the stop and ask process to work, both parties involved should have a common lingo. And I am not talking just about dialects and regional languages. It is lot more than that – I will give you couple of examples.
  1. I got on a rental car in Bangalore about a year ago and asked the driver to take me to Indian Institute of Science (IISC). Now, this rental car is from Avis and the driver is used to catering to business clients. He gave me a blank stare back and was embarassed to admit that he didn’t know what IISC was or where it was located. I was very surprised as IISC has been a landmark of Bangalore for years and a place where lot of conferences and business meetings are held. After a lot of hassle and hurried phone calls, we got to the place. The issue was that he knew the institution as “Tata Institute” and not as IISC. Never mind that the official name has almost always been IISC. As far as I can remember, going all the way back to my college days, it always has been IISC to me. If there can be so much difference in lingo for an established place like IISC, think of the confusion with regards to other landmarks.
  2. On another instance, I had a meeting at an old military club that has since been commercialized – it was called something like ABC Community Resort. I had a rough idea of where the resort was located; once I reached there, I started asking the locals for directions. Nobody had a clue and I got conflicting directions from every passerby. The problem was that the locals know the place as “Country Club” and not as ABC Community Resort. So, they were trying hard to place the name and were going on tangents. There have been several of these examples where the locals know the landmark by a name that literally has no correlation to the official name.
  3. Similarly, road names are not commonly used as navigation tools here. Sure everyone knows the big and popular roads but when you get to the next level of roads, they are rarely used. So, showing someone an address or asking for a specific road often gets confused empty stares. Okay, so you think it is all about landmarks – well not so easy there either – everybody has their own set of landmarks that they remember places by. And when two people talk they keep pointing out the landmarks they each know – but having no clue about the landmark the other one is mentioning. It can get to a point where it is like the blind men on an elephant story – everybody has their own view of the landmarks, directions, size of the road …

Most people get around these issues by calling a person at the destination and having them walk through the last mile. This has obvious limitations – accessible person on the other side, knowing the contact details at the destination …

I personally believe that as cities and towns continue to expand and people continue to be mobile, a good automated navigation solution becomes necessary for India. The solution can be on the web or on the mobile or take the form of a personal navigation device. The solution can not rely only on roads and streets and the numbers. The solution has to incorporate landmarks and several variants of them. Also, a navigation solution tightly integrated with Points of Interest will be of great use – the country still hasn’t been taken over by national brands when it comes to stores, restaurants, theatres and shopping ; the choices are often very local and extremely fragmented and disparate.

Karthee Madasamy

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