When navigating Singapore there are multiple options ranging from free, paid and overcharged.
Before I started driving everyday I had the time to check out the possible routes using the various online navigation sites like Google Maps, onemap, the infamous streetdirectory.com and a few others.
Once I quit public transport and started driving everywhere I went, I found that I was short on time as I began to fill up my schedule with the voids created by driving. Ironic since private transport is supposed to free up my time (which it did, only for me to fill it up again).
Back then, I was still serving National Service. I discovered that google maps would install and run on my non-camera Nokia e51. The phone was small enough that I could hold it in my hand and drive with no risk to anyone’s safety. The downside was that the data charges were high as each google map tile was downloaded. There was also no turn by turn voice navigation.
So I began to look for other ways to navigate Singapore. One of the things I discovered was a little program called Navit. It mainly uses the maps from openstreetmaps.org.
OpenStreetMaps is a very interesting project that allows users from all over the world to edit the world map. It’s free as well. The API is well published, as is the methods of updating the map.
The problem with Navit is that it requires you to compile the map into a single file. This is usually great if you’re going for a long trip without an internet connection but it sucks really bad if you need the latest maps the moment they are available (like in everyday life). This is where Navit fails spectacularly. Every time the map is updated you’ll need to recompile and download every single tile for the region you want, then you have to transfer it to your device.
Navit, however, is not a total loss as it does have the ability to route you to your destination without an internet connection. It does this via the compiled file that you have provided as aside from the map tile images, it also contains the raw data associated with that sector. This raw data contains actual waypoints and data about each road, what type it is, whether it’s one way or what type of buildings there are in the area. This is simply beautiful and is fairly ingenious. This ability to read the raw data also means that it can provide true turn by turn navigation.
This also unfortunately means that Navit relies heavily on the accuracy and completeness of the map. So in this regard, it’s not really Navit’s fault that it cannot provide proper navigation, at least not in my area. The other upside is that it also runs on linux so I have it on my laptop.
Another option is MGMaps. This is a particularly popular navigation choice for Nokia phones. It allows you to use either a compiled file or an internet connection to download the latest maps when needed. At the time, as I have mentioned, mobile internet connectivity was very expensive so I opted to use the compiled version. With an affiliated standalone program, you could automatically download maps from OpenStreetMaps, Google Maps, Yahoo Maps and a few more. At the time, Google Maps was way more complete compared to OpenStreetMaps so I downloaded that. The great thing about MGMaps is that while the visual data may be from one source, you can specify which online routing service you wanted to use to do the actual routing. It would then overlay the route from your routing source over the map source of your choice. This involved some data charges but was still way less than downloading tiles on the go. Occasionally you would see some quirks though as the route went over areas with seemingly no roads or it would lead you in a big circle because the routing service had not been updated with the latest roads.
Unfortunately, despite the huge compatibility list available to MGMaps, there was no turn by turn voice navigation implemented and the developers said that there wouldn’t be any time soon.
Nokia Ovi Maps
I then discovered that Nokia had a little program called Ovi Maps which was very much complete and furthermore, allowed offline turn by turn voice navigation! With my homework done, I went through all the motions of updating my phone and tweaking settings which would have voided my warranty only to find that it was not worth the effort. For some reason I was double incensed that my father’s Nokia E52 (remember that I had the E51) was able to run it all perfectly.
By this time I had begun to tire of my non camera Nokia (especially since Ovi Maps would not run on my phone) and being a linux fanboy, I was itching to lay my hands on an Android phone. I did my homework as best I could and as far as I could tell, Android supported navigation.
So I went out and bought one only to discover that the inbuilt Google Maps did not have turn by turn voice navigation. What really ticked me off however was to find that voice navigation and lane avoidance was not supported in Singapore. I mean, from what I saw, all the data was there – the step by step navigation option was able to do everything that I wanted in voice navigation, except say it out loud.
Of course, I had now purchased a handphone plan which bundled a whopping 12GB of free data for only $10 extra a month so the only stumbling block that was left was the voice.
Fyi, I also noticed that for some reason Google Maps on Android in Singapore would occasionally route me to a false destination. Twice I was been routed to the wrong building, once it was on the other side of the island (which I noticed but ignored in deference to my perception of Google’s awesomeness) and thrice I was sent to the wrong end of a road which is completely insane!
The good thing about Android though is it’s market which boasts a myriad of free ‘apps’ and I was soon able to try out many different navigation options.
Being an el cheapo, I finally settled on the free OsmAnd (you can also find it via the Android Market). It too used OpenStreetMaps. This sweet little ‘app’ was able to download maps on the fly and cache them and also provided a true turn by turn voice routing service!
The turn by turn notices were a bit slow (telling me to exit when almost past the exit) and could use some tweaking and the definition of roads is a bit unclear (especially with roads which diverge but remain parallel for some time) but since it used OpenStreetMaps, I knew I could edit the maps to be more accurate and complete! With that I was sold! It has it’s quirks but remains one of the best, and most importantly, a very tolerable app.
Some drawbacks include having to manually redownload tiles which have been cached (for updated map views). It also relies on an online routing service (itself using OpenStreetMaps) but is able to provide simple offline navigation when not in range of a network. It’s search function also leaves something to be desired as it requires you to know where your destination is (the road, the unit number, the building name, etc). If heading to an unknown destination, I usually google the location of my phone and then furnish the details to OsmAnd.
I’m now working with a Singaporean group that aims to improve the accuracy and level of detail of the Singapore map in OpenStreetMaps. Unfortunately, I seem to have joined the group after it had dissolved by default via absenteeism. I have however managed to provide a fairly complete map of my area. I have completed Simei (including all buildings except “landed” property) because it is the smallest estates in my area. I’ve begun working on Tampines now and it should be complete within the year. This will significantly improve people from the other side of the island (or indeed overseas) to navigate to this area. Unfortunately, it does nothing for me as I typically drive to the other side of the island, which is not complete.
The great thing about OpenStreetMaps is that it really has set the place for you at the table and offered many “doors” for you to contribute. For example, you can edit the map via it’s web interface or via a downloadable program (PC, Linux, Mac and even Android phones!). If you don’t have time to edit the maps yourself, you can also simply record your GPS tracks and upload it to the server. Other people will then use your tracks to trace out the roads on the map. It’s really that simple. If you have a lot of computing power but are very poor with mapping or have no GPS device to store GPS tracks, you can offer your computer to the cloud. This means you download a small program to your computer and whenever you’re computer is doing nothing, you can run it and it will download the updated map data so that it can generate/render/draw the nice map tile images that make up the map.
Whatever your inclinations, do your part by upgrading your area. Upload your tracks if you don’t have the time. Render the map tiles if you’re computer isn’t being utilised fully! Other people have helped you, so it’s nice if you can help them. This is the power of the open source community!
Those following this site, yes, I know about the eye in the sky thing. Like I said, technology is not inherently evil. Like every tool ever made, invented or discovered, only the people using it defines what it is.