Hikepack, a map application for hikers developed by a researcher, is based on algorithms that analyse genetic data

Alexandru Tomescu noticed that algorithms that assemble genetic data are also suited to creating hiking maps. While developing the Hikepack application, Tomescu also learned about the challenges of commercialising research.

Every hiker knows that long forest treks should not be embarked on relying only on the map on your mobile phone – the GPS will consume the battery or the phone will end up at the bottom of a lake. Then again, the possibility of verifying one’s location and other features found in map applications would at times be a welcome addition to printed maps.

Such considerations were also in the mind of Alexandru Tomescu, a researcher of computer science who hikes as a hobby.

Tomescu had a photo of the day’s route on the screen of his phone, but he was frustrated by the absence of a well-functioning routing application that would combine the reliability of a printed hiking map and the ease-of-use and interactive aspects of services such as Google Maps, also without an internet connection.

That was something he had to develop himself.

This looks familiar

Together with his colleague Alexandru-Alin Tudor, Tomescu began developing an application named Hikepack. The application utilises open-access map data from the OpenStreetMap website to create hiking maps, linking them with, for example, open data available from the National Land Survey of Finland.

OpenStreetMaps provided readily available information on hiking routes reported by users. However, this data was in need of refining, as there were potentially extensive blind spots on various routes.

“We wanted users to see routes as an unbroken entity,” Tomescu says.

Tomescu noticed that there was something familiar in linking bits of routes together. In their earlier research, Tomescu and his colleagues had developed algorithms to help arrange human DNA sequences in the correct order.

“DNA sequencers describe a certain part of the genome, while a picture of the entire genome must be established by combining these parts with the help of algorithms. We were able to apply these same methods to the map software,” Tomescu explains.

Routes taken also described by algorithms

Currently, Tomescu is developing a way to employ another algorithm used in genetic research in the map application to help users see the routes they have taken to a precise degree.

“Many phones contain a chip resembling a pedometer that measures the direction of the phone’s movement. The algorithm could connect these measurements to the phone’s GPS location data, and construct an accurate picture of the user’s route. The goal is to enable this without keeping the battery-consuming GPS feature constantly switched on,” Tomescu says.

In addition to saving the battery, attempts have been made to make the application practical throughout: it does not fill up the phone’s memory with large topographic maps but only displays accurate topographical details close to the hiking routes, where the user will most likely need them.

“This was made possible by the algorithms recognising the hiking route locations on the map, as they are able to provide the most detailed topographical data for precisely those areas,” Tomescu adds.

Basic course content in use

Hikepack is partly based on algorithms that are taught on basic courses in computer science, among them Dijkstra’s algorithm, which looks for the shortest path between two nodes in a graph. Another algorithm locates the spot on the map closest to the spot determined by the user.

“Personally, I found it very motivating to see an algorithm we teach to students literally functioning in the user’s hands,” Tomescu enthuses.

For the researcher, application development has also been an education in the challenges of commercialising research.

“My advice for other researchers is to not limit yourself to thinking only about the technical side of the product. The commercial aspect, marketing especially, is really important, particularly if the product is targeted at consumers, not businesses.”

  • Hikepack is a hiking and trekking map application developed by Alexandru Tomescu, a researcher at the Department of Computer Science, University of Helsinki, and software developer Alexandru-Alin Tudor.
  • The maps available through the application can be downloaded onto devices, after which they can be used without an internet connection. Maps can also be printed out via the application.
  • The application includes more than 800 maps from 10 countries. There are 56 maps from Finland.
  • In addition to the map data found in the OpenStreetMap database, the application utilises, among others, the satellite imagery of the United States Geological Survey and the National Land Survey of Finland.
  • For now, Hikepack is available on Apple devices.
  • Both a free version and a more extensive version subject to charge are available. The free version allows the user to pinpoint their own location, but route planning is only possible with the fee-based version.
  • Hikepack donates 5% of all sales income in Finland to the Finnish Natural Heritage Foundation.