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. 

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

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.