Happy pedestrians on the Millennium Bridge. Photo: Kunstlerbob at Wikimedia Commons
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Should mapping apps take us the scenic route?

Walk this way. 

Walking in cities can be a grim experience. Pavements along what are, essentially, motorways; grey concrete buildings looming over ominous back alleys – it’s fair to say many of us would sacrifice another five minutes to take a more aesthetically appealing route.

Yet mapping apps – which are, let’s face it, the only way any of us manage to put one foot in front of the other these days – are programmed to get us places via the quickest and most efficient route. Even if that’s down a darkened alley, or along the hard shoulder of a smog-enfolded dual carriageway.

Helpfully, though, researchers from Yahoo! and Italy’s University of Torino have taken the first step towards developing an alternative: apps which can take you via routes which, in their words, are “not only short, but also emotionally pleasant”.

For a paper released earlier this month, adorably entitled “The Shortest Path to Happiness”, they asked over 3,000 online users of their site Urbangems.org to decide which of two street scenes from Google Earth was the most beautiful. The researchers then used this data to put together four different routes between London’s Tate Modern and Euston station, and asked 30 people to test and rate them. Each route was chosen by the researchers to display a different quality: one was “beautiful”, another “happy”, a third “quiet”, and the last was “short”. The researchers also used “metadata” from Flickr – looking at which photos had positive captions or tags, counting how many likes they had, and so forth – to generate pleasant routes in London and Boston.

In each of these experiments, the team found that the shortest route was often ranked the lowest by users: the quickest path between their two destinations in London, for example, took walkers down busy, car-clogged roads, and crossed Blackfriars Bridge. Much better, many felt, to take a quieter and more scenic path across the pedestrianised Millennium Bridge. If a route is attractive, walkers often don’t even notice that it’s longer.

Both online and in the London experiment, participants generally favoured green spaces and historical buildings. This confirmed the findings of previous urban research which, the paper notes, has shown that “green spaces and Victorian houses are mostly associated with beauty, while trash and broken windows with ugliness”. Shocking, that.

The plan is to turn all these findings into an app for cities in the US and Europe. It wouldn’t be the first app to take users off the beaten path – Dérive gets you “lost in the city”, while Serendipitor uses the philosophy of, among others, Yoko Ono to “introduce small slippages and minor displacements within an otherwise optimized and efficient route” (oooohkay). But this would be the first app to generate routes based on “quiet, happiness and beauty”.

Of course, at least two of these qualities aren’t objective. Some of the study’s respondents commented that they liked routes associated with “personal stories”; others preferred busy areas to quiet ones. As a result, the researchers suggested that the app could also use personalisation, so routes were based on a user’s previous preferences. It could also, they say, “record [walkers’] memories associated with specific places and show these memories back to them when physically revisiting this place”. Proust eat your heart out. 

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon - in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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The Land Registry sale puts a quick buck before common sense

Without a publicly-owned Land Registry, property scandals would be much harder to uncover.

Britain’s family silver is all but gone. Sale after sale since the 1970s has stripped the cupboards bare: our only assets remaining are those either deemed to be worth next to nothing, or significantly contribute to the Treasury’s coffers.

A perfect example of the latter is the Land Registry, which ensures we’re able to seamlessly buy and sell property.

This week we learned that London’s St Georges Wharf tower is both underoccupied and largely owned offshore  - an embodiment of the UK’s current housing crisis. Without a publicly-owned Land Registry, this sort of scandal would be much harder to uncover.

On top of its vital public function, it makes the Treasury money: a not-insignificant £36.7m profit in 2014/15.

And yet the government is trying to push through the sale of this valuable asset, closing a consultation on its proposal this week.

As recently as 2014 its sale was blocked by then business secretary Vince Cable. But this time Sajid Javid’s support for private markets means any opposition must come from elsewhere.

And luckily it has: a petition has gathered over 300,000 signatures online and a number of organisations have come out publically against the sale. Voices from the Competition and Markets Authority to the Law Society, as well as unions, We Own It, and my organisation the New Economics Foundation are all united.

What’s united us? A strong and clear case that the sale of the Land Registry makes no sense.

It makes a steady profit and has large cash reserves. It has a dedicated workforce that are modernising the organisation and becoming more efficient, cutting fees by 50 per cent while still delivering a healthy profit. It’s already made efforts to make more data publically available and digitize the physical titles.

Selling it would make a quick buck. But our latest report for We Own It showed that the government would be losing money in just 25 years, based on professional valuations and analysis of past profitability.

And this privatisation is different to past ones, such as British Airways or Telecoms giants BT and Cable and Wireless. Using the Land Registry is not like using a normal service: you can’t choose which Land Registry to use, you use the one and only and pay the list price every time that any title to a property is transacted.

So the Land Registry is a natural monopoly and, as goes the Competition and Market Authority’s main argument, these kinds of services should be publically owned. Handing a monopoly over to a private company in search of profit risks harming consumers – the new owners may simply charge a higher price for the service, or in this case put the data, the Land Registry’s most valuable asset, behind a paywall.

The Law Society says that the Land Registry plays a central role in ensuring property rights in England and Wales, and so we need to ensure that it maintains its integrity and is free from any conflict of interest.

Recent surveys have shown that levels of satisfaction with the service are extremely high. But many of the professional bodies representing those who rely on it, such as the Law Society and estate agents, are extremely sceptical as to whether this trust could be maintained if the institution is sold off.

A sale would be symbolic of the ideological nature of the proposal. Looked at from every angle the sale makes no sense – unless you believe that the state shouldn’t own anything. Seen through this prism and the eyes of those in the Treasury, all the Land Registry amounts to is £1bn that could be used to help close the £72bn deficit before the next election.

In reality it’s worth so much more. It should stay free, open and publically owned.

Duncan McCann is a researcher at the New Economics Foundation