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.

Making QR Code Treasure Hunts

Been thinking about how you could set up a QR code-based tresure hunt activity – scanning a QR code in a location brings up a Google Maps link showing where the next clue is, and so on. It might be a way of structuring field trip activities – at each location there might be a task to complete, data to collect etc.

I was having problems getting this to work mainly because of a quirk of Google Maps that is way annoying!

Some QR code creators have an option for a link to Google Maps – you just enter the lat/long coordinates and the QR code generator does the rest.

The problem is that Google Maps only likes lat/long if it points to an actual address. If you enter coordinates for somewhere off-road it will default to the nearest highway. It seems bizarre that Google should purposefully do this. If I’m providing exact coordinates for a location isn’t it safe to assume that’s what I want to see on the map, not a road that might actually be a few miles away!

The coordinates for this code should be on a tree in the field to the north (51.558791N,-3.72299W) but the pin drops on the road 400m away.


So, after a bit of hunting on the forums here’s the solution.


Ignore the QR code generator’s automatic feature ike QR Stuff has. Go straight to Google Maps and turn on the satellite view (so you can see the location more accurately). Right click on the exact location and chose What’s Here from the list.

The coordinates will show in decimal form in the search bar above the map.

Before you get the URL link for sharing write “loc:” (in lower case) before the coordinates and hit “Enter”. This will refresh the map centred on your location.

Go to the “Link” button on the right and grab the URL from the pop-up box. (HINT: Ticking the short link function will result in a less complex QR code that is more scannable.)

Go to your QR code generator and paste in the link. Print the code out and away you go.

This QR code is set up to work properly.





Hmsg Spiral maps

John Johnston has recently blogged about a mapping project called Hmsg maps that’s worth a look.

It’s an elegant bit of digital storytelling from Charles Veasey and J. Craig Thompson where they traced a spiral shaped path from a key location in New York State, collecting audio and video and then mashing it together into a custom-made web app (using ActionScript and the Google Maps API).

Here’s the blog post and the actual project.

It’s wonderfully immersive in the way it gives multiple perspectives on a contrasting variety of locations (first person and and birds’ eye point of view, audio).

John has done his own using Javascript with a detailed explanation of how he did it.

Theres something about these videos of stillness that give a real flavour of the locations, making them great storytelling tools.

It may not be as immersive but it would be possible to do something similar straight out of Google Maps using the My Places function or Google Earth. Use the drawing tools to draw your path (spiral like they’ve done here, or perhaps a transect, zig zag, whatever). Once you’ve captured the media in the field, upload them to YouTube and embed them in placemark description boxes.

It would be a much cruder solution but more accessible to people without the web dev skills.