Should we be reading maps or moving forward?

This article was originally posted on xyHt

There has been a lot of press recently about an announcement from the Royal Institute of Navigation (RIN) declaring that “Society is being sedated by software” and it would appear that most of the media have jumped on board like the BBC, The Guardian, even the Western Morning News…And I have to agree with them to a certain extent, but there is a little part of it which grates on me a little though. It could be that I am a “Electric Map bloke” (not my words but those of my wife explaining my job) but the whole article seems a little backward thinking, I mean this as no disrespect to RIN, I know many of their members and I look up to all of them., but it reads as a little against technology…

Simple technology answers
Image from ©xkcd 2015

Satellite Navigation Systems (Sat Navs) are predominantly used by drivers, there is still very few users of the walking routes navigation…go on, ask your average 8/9 year old how to get to the shops and they may well start up Google Earth or some kind of online mapping system, they may even get directions but they won’t touch the navigation mode. Furthermore, how many young adults take a map with them when they are hiking or travelling nowadays? You will find that most young adults carry a spare set of batteries for their device rather than a paper map. Oh, and the arguement about signal? Ever heard of offline maps or network navigation (not as accurate but good enough if you are stuck in the middle of nowhere).

We [Geographers, Map Makers, Data Scientists etc] have pushed to develop technology which can actively support and inform people, we should embrace it and rather than complain about modernisation affecting techniques, we should make those using the technology to be more educated about it.

Did the world of geographers complain when Royal Mail gave each house a postcode, removing the need for coordinates to find a house? No, the fact is we still read maps, we still use coordinates, in fact location data is increasing in our daily life, ESRI [one of the worlds largest Geospatial software suppliers] stated that over 80% of data has a geospatial element.

Digital maps do layers

The fact is that using a digital map is more efficient. You can zoom in for more detail, obtain coordinates & even send them, there is the ability to overlay different schemes (OS, Google Earth, Bing, OSM basemaps) so that you can get a better understanding of where you are and from personal experience I must say that a mobile device won’t fly out of your hand as easily in the middle of  a windy field or go soggy and smudge in a rain storm (my device is waterproof).

Here is my proposal,

1, GIS needs to be taught in schools, this way children will NEED to handle coordinates, deal with geospatial awareness & learn the geographical interaction of everything around them.

2, Rather than teaching map reading, we should be teaching data collection to develop the next generation of cartographers, GIS experts & Data Scientists – Location data is in almost all data businesses handle, lets ensure it’s the best data!

3, Let’s give more children availability to mobile mapping and get them treasure hunting & playing location based games more.

4, We need to change the medias focus & make maps cool, have annual competitions open to younger people and also have more discussion in the media on WHY traffic issues are occuring…Using Ordnance Survey road network data (open source) childern can analyse better routes and solve navigation issues.

5, More 3D!! Lets get children thinking more about the world they live in and how it is represented. They see false 3D environments in video games, let’s bring that interest to representing the real world. Get them to make a house in Sketchup….it will take 2 minutes before they realise that it needs a location to appear in Google Earth and that 3D features need parameters like height!

RINS is kind of right, as we have developed and improved these amazing mapping systems on the internet and mobile media, we have forgotten to educate the new wave of users & developers. I think we need to take a different view on it though, location and navigation are vital parts of geography but then so is the translation. Technology is all around us and we will struggle to get someone to use a paper map, it’s a little like your dad bringing a Sinclair Spectrum 48k to a gaming day at your friends house.

Treasure map - see blog post

One of my fondest memories in the last year was making a treasure map with my children, 6yrs & 8yrs. This was not some school homework, no, my son said that he wanted to make a pirate map….for a change, instead of wiping teabags over paper and putting it in the oven, I opened my computer and started up QGIS. After I made a folder with some map data in, I showed them both the simple functions and left them for a couple of hours…..consequently 2 weeks later we went to London to visit Big Ben, where my son had “hidden” the treasure on the map he made.



  1. I have a couple of comments about the move from paper maps to digital… the first obvious one is that if I’m heading out somewhere where the loss of a phone signal or battery could potentially lead to a life-threatening situation, then I would prefer to have a secondary and equally valid method of getting myself back to safety. Furthermore, in many areas digital maps are still not detailed or accurate enough to show the sorts of features you might need to use for navigation, whereas a reputable paper map should be (caveat caveat caveat). So, why not treat the two skillsets as mutually valuable, and teach both?

    Secondly, in my experience of the way GIS is taught in schools, it needs to be software-agnostic. I once saw it demonstrated in a flagship (prize-winning) school, and was hugely disappointed that it was nothing more than a button-pushing exercise, only valid in one particular release of one particular proprietary GIS package. However, they had one thing right, which was to embed GIS into almost every subject (possibly not cooking), as a tool for analysis, calculation, and research.

    Another minor issue with teaching GIS in schools is that high-quality teaching materials, for all parts of the curriculum take a lot of time (and money) to create. Consequently the available materials are biased towards those companies that can afford to spend the time creating them and keeping them up to date.

    1. Hi Jo,
      Thanks for the insight…having given a few talks in schools, I must admit that resources are hard to come by, plus experience with schools IT has taught me that GIS on a USB stick is the only safe way of working!
      By no means am I saying that we should stop map reading or give up paper maps, in fact I know a few maritime navigators who have fallen foul of relying on their electronic systems only to run aground….what I am saying is that we shouldn’t (as RIN put it) make map reading compulsary and fear software. I personally don’t feel that software is “sedating the children” but in my experience I find it opening up more avenues and opportunities than I ever had as a child.
      How important do you feel map reading is at school? Do you find children leapfrogging onto more complex issues?

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