Trails near me

I stayed this week at the Embassy Suites in Bellevue, Washington [1, 2]. Normally when visiting Microsoft I’m closer to campus, but the usual places were booked so I landed here. I don’t recommend the place, by the way, and not because of the door fiasco, that could have happened in any modern hotel. It’s the Hyatt-esque atrium filled with fake boulders and plastic plants that creeps me out. Also the location near the junction of 156th and route 90. Places like this are made for cars, and I want to be able hike and run away from traffic.

A web search turned up no evidence of running trails nearby. So I went down to the gym only to find people waiting in line for the treadmills. Really? It’s depressing enough to run on a treadmill, I’m not going to queue for the privilege. So I headed out, figuring that a run along busy streets is better than no run at all.

Not far from the hotel, on 160th, I found myself in a Boeing industrial park alongside a line of arriving cars. As I jogged past the guard booth a guy leaped out at me and asked for my badge. “I’m just out for a run,” I said. “This is private property,” he said, and pointed to a nearby field. “But I think there’s a trail over there.” I crossed the field and entered part of the Bellevue trail network. The section I ran was paved with gravel, with signs identifying landmarks, destinations, and distances. I ran for 45 minutes, exited into the parking lot of a Subaru dealership near my hotel, and congratulated myself on a nice discovery.

Later I went back to the web to learn more about the trails I’d run. And found nothing that would have enabled a person waiting in line for a treadmill at the Embassy Suites to know that, within a stone’s throw, there were several points of access to a magnificent trail system. The City of Bellevue lists trails alphabetically, but the name of the nearby Robinswood Park Trail had meant nothing to me until I found it myself. Nor did I find anything at the various trails and exercise sites that I checked — laboriously, one by one, because each is its own silo.

I knew exactly what I wanted: running trails near me. That the web didn’t help me find them is, admittedly, a first world problem. What’s more, I like exploring new places on foot and discovering things for myself. But still, the web ought to have enabled that discovery. Why didn’t it, and how could it?

The trails I found have, of course, been walked and hiked and cycled countless times by people who carry devices in their pockets that can record and publish GPS breadcrumbs. Some will have actually done that, but usually by way of an app, like Runtastic, that pumps the data into a siloed social network. You can get the data back and publish it yourself, but that’s not the path of least resistance. And where would you publish to?

Here’s a Thali thought experiment. I tell my phone that I want to capture GPS breadcrumbs whenever it detects that I’m moving at a walking or running pace along a path that doesn’t correspond to a mapped road and isn’t a path it’s seen before. The data lands in my phone’s local Thali database. When I’m done, the data just sits there. If there was nothing notable about this new excursion my retention policy deletes the data after a couple of days.

But maybe I want to contribute it to the commons, so that somebody else stuck waiting in line for a treadmill can know about it. In that case I tell my phone to share the data. Which doesn’t mean publish it to this or that social network silo. As Gary McGraw once memorably said: “I’m already a member of a social network. It’s called the Internet.”

Instead I publish the data to my personal cloud, using coordinates, tags, and a description so that search engines will index it, and aggregators will include it in their heat maps of active trails. Or maybe, because I don’t want my identity bound to those trails, I publish to an anonymizing service. Either way, I might also share with friends. I can do that via my personal cloud, of course, but with Thali I can also sync with them directly.

For now I have no interest in joining sites like Runtastic. Running for me is quiet meditation, I don’t want to be cheered on by virtual onlookers, or track my times and distances, or earn badges. But maybe I’ll change my mind someday. In that case I might join Runtastic and sync my data into it. Later I might switch to another service and sync there. The point is that it’s never not my data. I never have to download it from one place in order to upload it to another. The trails data lives primarily on my phone. Anyone else who interacts with it gets it from me, where “me” means the mesh of devices and personal cloud services that my phone syncs with. I can share it with my real friends without forcing them to meet me in a social network silo. And I can share it with the real social network that we call the web.

7 thoughts on “Trails near me

  1. This is also a Smallest Federated Wiki thought experiment (I know I have a one track mind lately). But the advantage there of the “universal canvas” is that the hotel staff — or a frustrated tourist I guess, given the hotel ethos — could actually pull your trail run, someone else’s note about places to eat, and perhaps instructions for rebooting a door into a “Surviving your Embassy Suites Bellevue Stay” SFW document, while another person could combine it along with other run data into a “Seattle Area Runs” document — all in a JSON format.

  2. It would also act as a data gathering with hints (the gathering speed) to feed into Open Street Map.

    Which, obviously, provides most of the anonymised(ish) sharing with strangers that you mention. A service like Open Cycle Map could be useful for trail runners, as you could emphasise the runner-focused data, and hide or de-emphasise the more car-focused data.

    The Open Cycle Map view for where you went running isn’t too bad – – the trails are more obvious, and the interstate less so.

    The trails there seem particularly well mapped – when I had a quick look at the tags (pretended I was going to edit it from in for the trails in Robinswood Park I could see that the surface has been tagged as bark and gravel, so a trails-focused version could bring that data out too.

  3. For your next visit, I recommend the Hyatt House, Seattle/Redmond. It is quiet and slightly out-of-the-way but you can easily walk to Top Pot Donuts. And … there is an as-long-as-you-want-to-run trail that follows the Sammamish River seemingly for ever. The trail is less than 50 yards from the front door. It’s my first choice when visiting Redmond.

  4. @michael and @adrian: Thanks! I had not thought of OpenStreetMap in this context, clearly I should have. @Speed: Noted, thanks.

  5. I tend to use Google maps in Aerial Photo mode. Often informal trails can often be seen on ground photos where there are no clues on official maps.

    OpenStreetMap is a good idea too, thanks to the hive mind in its @michael and @adrian avatars..

    mapmyrun and strava have discovery modes for seeing other people’s routes, though I haven’t had much luck with these.
    The Strava heatmap appears to have been updated since last I looked, will have to try again,

  6. The idea of publishing it on the Internet makes sense but I can’t say I’m super happy with the idea of completely relying on search engines to figure out what the heck to do with it.

    My suspicion is that we need aggregators like runtastic (or whatever) but the Thali (or federated wiki for that matter) view is that your data lives on your device and you can share it with whom you want, many times over. So if you move to a different aggregator, your data moves with you. If you want to share just with your friends, no aggregator is needed at all of course. The point is to empower people to own their data so it goes with them, not into a data prison.

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