Travel applications connect the dots

The development of smartphones has made travel and map applications a must Keystone

Location-based services are becoming more and more common on smartphones and tablets and have made their appearance on the travel market. But keeping up to date is anything but simple.

This content was published on November 13, 2012 - 11:00
Scott Capper,

Once upon a time, Swiss maps were considered by many people to be an example of craftsmanship and precision. Today, they still are, but face competition from location-based services on mobile devices, not least from tourism specialists.

Knowing where you are has gone from a privilege once reserved for the United States armed forces to something every smartphone owner considers almost normal in just a few years.

Travel apps and tourism

Publicly-funded Switzerland Tourism has positioned itself as one of the leaders in this market with free applications appealing to hikers and travellers. For the national agency, it was a logical move.

“For us, geolocation is important, especially for our city guides with specific maps and itineraries,” says spokeswoman Véronique Kanel. “The fact you can switch on the smartphone GPS (global positioning system) whenever you want means you can use them to find your way around a city as if you had a human guide.”

Her colleague Roland Baumgartner has been a close observer of the changes as positioning data has become more widespread.

“Twenty years ago, a brochure would mention a nice waterfall, but where was it? You would need a map and a clear starting point,” he told “Today the coordinates of the waterfall are given and even the direction in which to go.”

However, this is not enough for many users and it highlights a switch from traditional promotional activities, he added.

“When it comes to digital content, people expect quantity, much more than with print,” he said. “Everybody understands you cannot produce a 200-page flyer, whereas a device using GPS will not become thicker if you download 100 trails.”

Rail travel and social network

Another heavy hitter in the travel business announced last week that it would be pushing with a location-based service. The Swiss Federal Railways said it would be launching a social network in December allowing passengers to track down their friends on trains.

“We have one million clients every day on our trains, an existing community in reality, so we wanted to connect them,” said railways spokesman Daniele Pallecchi. “It’s an experiment with the biggest existing social community in Switzerland.”

The railways claim that it is not a marketing exercise, at least for the moment, nor that they are trying to compete with the likes of Facebook or Twitter. Rather they want to see if it will be as successful as they hope it might be.

“Feedback from our clients suggested it might be useful,” Pallecchi told “Some of our trains carry more than 1,000 passengers making it difficult to find people you know. If you have to travel three hours, you might want to find out if some of your friends are on board.”

However, keeping those customers happy is a tall order: the quality or the relevance of the applications cannot be ignored.

River deep and mountain high

“If you create a demand and find users, you have a kind of responsibility to provide a service,”  says Florian Michahelles, a researcher at Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology. “Users can rate you up, they can rate you down and they expect continuous service.”

Michahelles was one of the brains behind the Swisspeaks project, a location-based application launched in 2009 that provided augmented-reality identification of mountain summits.

Early on, the student project had 20,000 users, many of them providing feedback on how to improve it. However, this is not always enough to stay ahead.

“If you have a good idea, the competition is really tough,” said Michahelles. “A lot of other apps are published, so you have to continually improve yours and add features to distinguish it from the others.”

The need to move it from a part-time to a full-time project and a lack of resources at the university pretty much spelt the end of Swisspeaks though. The application has not been updated since 2010.

Geolocation has its limits too, mainly due to the nature of the technology. Inside buildings, you cannot receive the GPS signals that provide the most precise location data, while wireless networks and other methods are sometimes unreliable.

“Some phones also decide which method to use when determining a location, so you cannot rely on the indications you are given,” says application developer Adrian Kosmaczewski.

Kosmaczewski, who put together a guide for Lausanne cathedral and mobile applications for, warns that clients should not overestimate the possibilities of geolocation at this time.

“Retailers for example would like to show on what shop floor a customer is on, but don’t realise it’s impossible,” he added.

So maybe it’s not time to give up on old-fashioned maps. Baumgartner certainly believes so.

“If someone still wants an overview of their hike and to understand the surroundings, a paper map is still better because if you zoom out on a mobile phone or tablet, it changes the scale and you lose details,” he said.

And certainly those details might keep you from falling off a mountain.

Localisation technology

Satellite geolocation, using the Global Localisation System or GPS, was originally developed for navigation in the military sector. Today, it is in use in a wide range of areas such as point-to-point navigation in private vehicles.

Mobile phone localisation is carried out using mobile phone antennae. The precision of the location depends on the density of transmitter masts. Mobile phones with internet access, so-called smartphones, are also fitted with a GPS module which enables more accurate fixes.

Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs) are used to wirelessly interconnect computers in close proximity to each other and to the internet. A WLAN base station enables wireless access to a local network. Mobile phone devices are positioned in relation to the base stations, provided these are listed in corresponding databases.

Localisation via IP address: Every device needs an IP address to access the internet. With a known IP address the geographical location of the terminal can be reduced to a specific area. Precise localisation assumes that the provider discloses the connection data.

Source: Geographical signposts in cyberspace. Localisation technologies as a challenge for an open society. TA-Swiss

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