Geographic Sorting – Lessons to Learn from Ingress

I’ve recently been spending a bit of my spare time playing Ingress (see the Wikipedia page if you haven’t heard of it). A quick summary is that Ingress is an Android phone game that involves geo-location of “portals” that you aim to control and most operations on a portal can only be performed when you are within 40 meters – so you do a lot of travelling to get to portals at various locations. One reasonably common operation that can be performed remotely is recharging a portal by using it’s key, after playing for a while you end up with a collection of keys which can be difficult to manage.

Until recently the set of portal keys was ordered alphabetically. This isn’t particularly useful given the fact that portal names are made up by random people who photograph things that they consider to be landmarks. If people tried to use a consistent geographic naming system (which was short enough to fit in large print on a phone display) then it would be really difficult to make it usable. But as joke names are accepted there’s just no benefit in having a sort by name.

A recent update to the Ingress client (the program which runs on the Android phone and is used for all game operations) changed the sort order to be by distance. This makes it really easy to see the portals which are near you (which is really useful) but also means that the order changes whenever you move – which isn’t such a good idea for use on a mobile phone. It’s quite common for Ingress players to recharge portals while on public transport. But with the new Ingress client the list order will change as you move so anyone who does recharging on a train will find the order of the list changing during the process and it’s really difficult to find items in a list which is in a different order each time you look at it.

This problem of ordering by location has a much greater scope than Ingress. One example is collections of GPS tagged photographs, it wouldn’t make any sense to mix the pictures of two different sets of holiday pictures because they were both taken in countries that are the same distance from my current location (as the current Ingress algorithm would do).

It seems to me that the best way of sorting geo-tagged items (Ingress portals, photos, etc) is to base it on the distance from a fixed point which the user can select. It could default to the user’s current location but in that case the order of the list should remain unchanged at least until the user returns to the main menu and I think it would be ideal for the order to remain unchanged until the user requests it.

I think that most Ingress players would agree with me that fixing annoying mis-features of the Ingress client such as this one would be better for the game than adding new features. While most computer games have some degree of make-work (in almost every case a computer could do things better than a person) I don’t think that finding things in a changing list should be part of the make-work.

Also it would be nice if Google released some code for doing this properly to reduce the incidence of other developers implementing the same mistakes as the Ingress developers in this regard.

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