Friday, November 9, 2007

Road planner for Lebanon

The Daily Star mentioned today that there is a new site with road maps and a trip planner for Lebanon. Anyone who has ever explored the roads in Lebanon trying to find landmarks like Baalback, the Qana Museum or even the Cedars knows that this is a mission impossible due to lack of road signs. A good map therefore is essential. Does this site help?

For a guy like me who loves nothing better than to drive around aimlessly in remote areas, Lebanon is among the best countries in the world: there are hardly any useful signs to point you to the right direction, so you have to reach your destination by trial and error. More often than not, this leads you to places that are actually much more interesting than the intended target.

Last year during spring, e.g., my dad and I found this beautiful newly asphalted road leading south from Rachaya, straight past Mount Hermon and almost directly to the border with Israel. The road started and ended in the middle of nowhere, what made it even more mysterious. Must have been some EU money gone astray.

Or who has ever visited the Shebaa village (the farms were off-limit, but the village is freely accessible) or the Pyramid of Hermel, or took the most northern crossing into the Bekaa valley, or visited Ras Naqoura and were stopped by Unifil troops? Yup, not too many Lebanese can say they have…and I wouldn’t have either were it not for the lack of road signs and quality maps.

It is therefore with mixed feelings that I went to see the site Imagine you would get crystal clear maps directing you exactly to your destination…B O R I N G! Luckily, the site is as difficult to navigate as the average Lebanese road. The concept of the website is quite unclear, but after some puzzling, it is meant to be a trip planner, not a map per se.

This means that you have to set your starting point. You can do this by landmark or by city. The landmark option is possibly included for those visitors who don’t know in which city they live, but they know exactly next to which landmark they are. Too bad, the most essential landmarks are not included: the MacDonalds, Burger Kings and other fast food joints.

By the way, the restaurants that are mentioned are completely unknown to me and possibly due to a mistake: ever heard of the Ras al-Sarafand Resthouse or the Bouhayrat Jezzine restaurant, which are supposedly located in Beirut?

In any case, my advise would be to select your starting point by city. Not that it makes it much clearer: when you select Beirut as a city, you then have to select the area…which is indicated by the comment “---Select City---“, where you can select Hamra, Cola, etc. The next step would be to set your trip duration, first in days, then in number of hours per day. If you select more than 1 day, the site asks you if you want to stay in a hotel or return to your starting point, which is a nice feature.

After this information, you get to heart of it: selecting your actual destination points. You can select multiple sites to visit and the website will give you the best road. Anyone looking to go to Tripoli is out of luck: the city with the most beautiful souq in Lebanon is not included. That must have had something to do with the recent fighting in Nahr al-Barad. Also, if you’re a Muslim looking for a mosque, you’re out of luck. Hardly any such destination exists. Christians, on the other hand, have plenty of choices since it seems pretty much all churches are included as a possible destination.

Photo 1: Detailed map of the road

Other than this strange bias, the selection options are pretty extensive: you can select by city and what’s more by theme. Simply select the destination and tell the website what kind of places you want to see in between: Culture & History, Kids & Families, Religious places (surprise!), etc. You can delve even further in each category by selecting a sub theme. Under Culture & History, e.g., you can specify if you want to see arts, cuisine & wine, traditional crafts, etc. Quite impressive and it’s also fun to browse through this comprehensive list of tourist places.

Upon finishing entering the various destinations, the site will calculate the road. All throughout this process you have to be patient because the website is s.s.s.l.l.l.o.o.w.w.w.w. Every selection you make takes a long time to process. Too bad because it really doesn’t have to be this way. Try YahooMaps or GoogleMaps for comparison and see how fast they process your choices.

After you have been given plenty of time to mull over the advantages of other mapping sites, the road calculation finally results in a verbal description of the road, which is broken down into way too many segments. Instead of simply saying: “Go straight until X”, they give you each and every little crossroad or changing of names of the road you’re on, only to say that you have to keep going straight. Such advices are repeated sometimes every 100 meter which makes the description rather messy.

Photo 2: Elaborate and often confusing directions

What about the map, then? Finding your bearings on the map is difficult. You can click on arrows around the map and the map gets redrawn…which takes forever and is quite cumbersome. To move north, you have to keep on clicking the arrow at the top of the map. Another option is to select a little hand and then you can drag the map around, which is slightly faster.

Photo 3: A high-level map of the selected road

The largest shortcoming of the site is that you cannot easily print the map to take it with you on your trip. You can only print either the whole trip, which is way too high level, or you can print detailed parts of the trip. However, this means breaking up the maps in numerous detailed maps by painfully navigating and printing each section.

A complicating factor in this already difficult enough process is that the map does not center on your roads. Unless you have a few hours to spare, you wouldn’t want to even try finding back your roads. It’s too bad that the makers of the website didn’t include a simple “Print Road” option. Also, the maps don’t really look like maps since it only contains the roads and sight-seeing locations. Don’t bother looking for terrain indicators, villages/cities that are colored and all other lay-outs you expect from a regular map.

Photo 4: Example of clear mapping lay-out from GoogleMaps

The biggest question, perhaps, is why the makers didn’t hook up with existing websites, like GoogleMaps, Yahoo Maps, others? Instead of reinventing the wheel, Google etc. would love to add the data on Lebanese roads and locations to their site, so users could benefit from the superior services offered by these sites. This seems like a missed opportunity to truly help tourists visiting Lebanon and Lebanese exploring their own country.

All in all, despite my sometimes harsh tone throughout the article, it’s easy to see how the website could be useful. The makers have gone through an extensive effort to collect all the data on tourist sites in Lebanon. For now, though, the website is still quite rough on the edges. Hopefully, these are simple startup problems and will be fixed soon. If the makers would focus on improving the quality of the maps, make the verbal directions shorter and would add the important option of printing the map in an easy way, the website would increase a lot in functionality.

Still, there is plenty to explore and to learn about Lebanon by going through the extensive list of destinations. You can select destinations you never heard of, create a route and see descriptions and pictures for each to learn more about them. That alone should be reason enough to add this site to your favorites.


G said...

Thanks for posting about this, it sounds interesting. You're right about the site itself: very slow, but like you said, ths might get better with time

Riemer Brouwer said...

Previous comment of cedars1559 removed since it had no relation with the blog article