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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Walk Score gets interactive, makes space for user photos & comments

Kaid Benfield

Posted September 26, 2012 in Green Enterprise, Living Sustainably

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  neighborhood public space (courtesy of Eric Fredericks, neighborhoods.org, via NRDC SB375 report)

So, if the wildly and justly popular internet app Walk Score hooked up with the crowdsourced travel site Trip Advisor and produced offspring, it might turn out something like the new-generation Walk Score launched this week:  location-based walkability ratings calculated from objective data, augmented with user reviews, photos and input.

I’ve praised Walk Score before as pure genius, enabling anyone to obtain an instant approximation of how rich a neighborhood is in shops, services and amenities within walking distance.  The more things one can reasonably walk to, the higher the score (and, research shows, the more one will walk, on average, and the less one will drive).  I use it all the time and so do most people I know.  But, a simple idea based on very complex GIS-based data and algorithms, the traditional Walk Score only gave a highly educated guess about the actual human experience.  That’s where the new version, which invites and displays user comments, comes in.

  new Walk Score app interface showing user photos (courtesy of Walk Score)  click to pull up user-generated photos & comments (courtesy of Walk Score)

According to the company’s press release, the new function - available as a free iPhone app as well as on the Walk Score website, invites users to do the following:

  • Share neighborhood gems including the local businesses, public art, architecture and green spaces you love, and comment on other people’s pictures and reviews.
  • Identify and report walkability problem spots such as dangerous intersections and high-crime areas that you’d like fixed and share lists of these places with neighbors and public officials.
  • View crowd-sourced neighborhood tours including maps, pictures and comments about nearby dining, coffee, groceries, schools, parks and more.
  • Discover new places and experiences by browsing recently added places, pictures and comments by neighborhood or by individual contributor.

You can get a sense of how it works from the images shown here.  According to the company, it “is now combining the power of its quantitative scores, maps and lists of nearby amenities with crowd-sourced photos and comments to empower people to explore neighborhoods through the eyes of the people who know them best.”  If you contribute ten or more items within a neighborhood, you can be identified as a “local expert.”

neighborhood gems feature (courtesy of Walk Score)I believe that, when it comes to healthy, sustainable communities, two scales matter most:  the metro region, where high-level decisions must be made to be meaningful, and the neighborhood, where we experience our environment as individuals and where increments of change actually take place.  We care immensely about the neighborhoods we inhabit and visit and have a responsibility, I think, to preserve what is best about each while improving the aspects that could be better.  Information-sharing is critical to both tasks, and Walk Score just made it easier - while making it more fun, too.

Since the service just launched, it may have some kinks to work out.  I entered my home address, for example, and clicked on the link for “neighborhood gems.”  Several were listed, but none are within actual walking distance of my house; presumably, if the function takes off, the site’s problem will become too many rather than too few user entries, but for right now there may not be much entered for your neighborhood.  Also, there is no obvious way to navigate back to the menu once you are within a category if, like me, you were done with “gems” and then wanted to see “groceries” or “restaurants."  (I miss the old format that did not force the user to choose a category to see the neighborhood features.)  In general, I get the impression that the new function is favorably tweaked for iPhone users, so perhaps there is some loss of functionality if you access it on the web and almost certainly (at least for now) if your phone has a different operating system. 

There was also the perennial problem of missing restaurants and such from Walk Score’s data base.  The new function may improve that as users are able to correct missing or outdated information.  Finally, the photos of the “gems,” presumably posted by users, looked uncomfortably like advertising to me; I have no reason to think that they are but, having seen Google Earth already seriously cluttered by advertising-posing-as-reference-points, I would hate to see any drift by Walk Score in that direction, intentionally or not.  It will certainly be in the interest of business owners to post "user" photos and comments. 

Congrats to the Walk Score team for continually improving their product.  By the way, I believe this is the first time I have used the neo-word “crowdsourcing” in my writing.  It doesn’t feel good.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channels.

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Comments

Juliea MalvinaSep 26 2012 09:55 PM

I don't think Walkscore is very accurate. It omitted around 20 restaurants and maybe 200 shops that are within walking distance of my house as well as the bus lines on the corner and the two train stations that are both within a mile.

Matt LernerSep 27 2012 12:57 PM

@Juliea what area are you looking in? FYI, we show only the closest 10 amenities to an address to avoid overwhelming people with clutter. If you want to see how your score is calculated click the Street Smart Walk Score button.

Vox PopuliOct 4 2012 10:44 AM

Just checked out the new website and it's rubbish. Usability has gone to practically nil. Thin "map strip" at the top replacing the larger and far more useful map filling the right 3/4 of the screen. Categories, such as shopping, coffee, groceries, etc, now pull up a huge window with a useless Google street view close up. Even worse, you have to click back on the browser to get to the other categories. There's apparently no way to change categories without clicking back on the browser!

This is simply awful webpage design, foregoing sensible and intuitive layouts for iOS-inspired eye candy and "look how interactive we are" pop up crap.

Matt LernerOct 4 2012 08:58 PM

@Vox you can click the Use Old Version of Walk Score link under the neighborhood slideshow if you want the old version back.

Today we added a back button that makes it easier to navigate back to whatever list you were on. You can also drag the map to be as large as you like.

Does that help?

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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