Technology isn’t about to kill map-reading

The Royal Institute of Navigation have been in the news today with a press-release titled “Society “Sedated By Software”, Needs Nav Skills Taught At School”.

It’s about the demise of traditional map-reading and navigation skills. They say, with the growth of digital mapping and GPS-enabled devices:

“generations are now growing up utterly dependent on signals and software to find their way around.”

Now, I’m a bit disappointed they’ve gone with the hackneyed line invoking the technology-as-sedative argument and inevitably saying the solution lies in schools but I do have a lot of sympathy with their main point.

I love maps. No, wait. I bloody love maps! They’re how we represent place to ourselves and, more importantly, how we relate to that place. And they’re beautiful and functional at the same time.

So, being able to read a map, place yourself in relation to it or even carry around a reliable mental map are, I think, an essential part of learning about the world. I hope I can help my kids become good map readers.

But I also think that this isn’t a maps-good: technology-bad  debate which some people might see it as. Technology has got a crucial role to play in engagement with mapping and interpretation of place.

The UK’s Ordnance Survey maps are the gold standard for mapping. Although tools like Google Earth and Streetview don’t come close they still offer a massive amount in the way of data layering, scaling, interactivity and social media. It can only be a good thing that children (and grown-ups!) spend ages flying through Google Earth to find their house as well as exploring far off destinations, enjoying the experience of maps.

And we shouldn’t see GPS-enabled mobile devices as necessarily meaning the death of navigation skills either. I use apps like Strava and Google Maps routinely on my phone when I’m cycling round Northumberland. Combining the use of the apps with the actual experience of being in the landscape has really helped me develop my geographical understanding of a part of the country I love.

If our aim is better spatial awareness and understanding of place then we need to combine the best aspects of traditional mapping, digital technology and physically being out in the field.

Image from Pixabay – Public Domain



Magic Mountains – using PeakFinder to name the mountains round you

Hat tip to Google Maps Mania for posting about this.

In my later years I hope to be able to walk around any part of Scotland, point to the horizon and exclaim without hesitation things like, “ah yes, Buachaille Etive Mor. A challenging climb but well worth the effort, my lad.” Or something similar.

Trouble is, at the moment I have very little idea what I’m looking at. Even looking at an OS map and working out what peaks are going to be visible in 3D space is a headache.

Take this pic for example, taken near Crainlarich:

Ben More by moonlight

This was the (moonlit) view from a campsite I was at with the family recently. I knew Ben More was out of shot to the left but the other peaks I had only a vague idea.

So this clever website is a real bonus. It’s caled Peakfinder.

You enter in a location using Google Maps or coordinates then it spits out a simple line-drawn panorama showing the names of the visible peaks around you.

Here’s the same horizon as the pic above:

Which is kind of neat.

You can share the exact view you’ve found via Facebook or a URL or download the entire panorama as a PDF.

They do have a mobile app available but only for certain locations (Alps, and parts of USA and Canada).

You could bodge something together using Layar if you wanted an AR version but that has a number of problems like poor coverage in mountainous areas and being able to see markers for peaks that aren’t even visible from your viewpoint. It takes quite some GIS jiggery-pokery to achieve that.

Is it useful?

Certainly from the point of view of helping establish a sense of place and orientation if you’re out in the field, or combining it with a traditional map reading exercise (compare the horizon view with what’s represented on an OS map? Sketch a peak’s prfile from the contours on the map then compare with PeakFinder?).

Perhaps students could try reverse engineering something like it using GIS tools for something a bit more challenging.