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



On yer bike! Cycling, tech & travel

We’re quite fond of our bikes here at Netskills, those of us who have them. But it’s not often we get a chance to use them for work (if you ignore the regular commuting).

The Enhancing Fieldwork Learning showcase, which has run for the last three years, is an event for sharing practice relating to technology in the field for geographers, geologists, biologists and others. Naturally, these weekends take place out in the country and this year we were heading for Betws-y-Coed in Snowdonia. More about the event in future posts but here’s my report from last year.

Countryside around Betws-y-Coed
Countryside around Betws-y-Coed

It’s a very pretty town with access by rail, but sadly not on a Sunday when the event finished.

So when I was planning my travel I though “what the hell, why not do a portion of it by bike?” Llandudno Junction’s the nearest station and that’s a doable 17 miles away.

As we’re Netskills, technology is never far away. With a bit of research on Google Maps (now with directions for cycling) it was obvious that there was a simple route up the Afon Conwy along a quietish B road. Checking out some of the local rides logged on Ride with GPS showed that, apart from a 250ft bump coming out of Conwy, it was fairly flat so nothing to be scared of!

I’d never taken a bike on the train before and working out how to get spaces booked was bewildering, until a nice lady at the The Trainline sorted it all out for me.

On reflection it might not have been the best weekend to choose to try this given that THIS was being forecast for the Sunday:

Careful out there! It's stormy
Careful out there! It’s stormy

Nevertheless, waterproofs packed and bullet bitten off I went early on Friday morning. Despite being weighed down with panniers full of outdoor gear, I made good time between Llandudno Junction and Betws-y-Coed, around 1hr 16 mins. More to the point, I enjoyed myself.

Fully laden bike
Full-laden and waiting for the train. Gartner Hype Cycle not shown

I used Strava to log the route there and back again. Strava’s a neat tool for social sharing of rides but I have to question the accuracy of logging my maximum speed on the return leg at 41.8mph! You’d have to be Chris Froome to manage that.

Return journey logged on Strava
Return journey logged on Strava (click for details)

Here’s a 3D view of the route using VeloViewer. Click the image for an interactive version (Firefox, Chrome or Safari recommended).


3D elevation on
3D elevation on

Surprisingly, the hardest part of the journey was the trains; reasonably civilised on the way down but an absolute scrum coming back on the Sunday. I don’t think I’ve ever been as unpopular as I was on the 17:42 from Manchester Piccadilly to Newcastle!

Llandudno Junction Station
Llandudno Junction Station

Overall, I’m very pleased to be able to say I did it, but I’m unlikely to make a habit of it. Most of our events take place in big urban areas which are a lot less pleasant for cycling round than Snowdonia was.

Even in the rain.

Making location-based activities with ARIS


I’d stumbled upon ARIS about a year ago but never had a chance to try it out until recently. Given that I’m now doing workshops on geolocation stuff and I’m presenting at an Enhancing Fieldwork showcase, it seemed the right moment to try. 

ARIS is a free tool for creating location based “games” that can be accessed and played via an iPhone app. It’s similar in many ways to HP’s Mediascapes that I did some stuff with back in Sheffield a few years ago. It’s been designed by a team based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Using a Flash based editor on your desktop you add “objects” to a Google Map and then set the behaviours for each of them. Objects can be:

  • Items – virtual objects that can be picked up and stored in the iphone app’s inventory, or carried and dropped by players
  • Plaques – information and media (audio and video) pop-ups, perhaps telling you about a location or giving you new instructions
  • Characters – essentially virtual people that you can programme with branching converstaions for a player to interact with.

Each of these items can include “requirements” so that they behave in a particular way. For example a character won’t appear on the map for a player to talk to until then have picked up a certain item.

Objects and the tasks and behaviours surrounding them can then be grouped into “quests”. So, to complete a quest a player has to find a certain number of items, talk to various characters or visit locations etc; there then might be a follow-up quest to complete, and so on.

When the player is out in the field using the GPS-enabled app, they access the game on the server (you need internet connectivity) and away they go. As they get within a defined proximity of an object, the phone will vibrate and give off a (pretty loud) tone. They then view the plaque, pickup the item or interact with the character. The player can see a map of their location and the game can be played blind or the designer can choose to reveal the location of some or all objects.

Another neat touch is that the app allows the player to take pictures or record audio within the game. In the mock-up I did I had a “Will Allen” avatar pop up while I was outside Haymarket Metro instructing me to take a picture of a particular statue. Once I’d done that, the avatar popped up again to confirm I’d done what he asked. Neat.

You can find much more detailed info on their site and get started here.

Some random initial thoughts:

  • There’s obvious applications for enhancing fieldwork, either from the point of view of giving students added information about the locations they are visiting or going to the other extreme of highly interactive stotytelling activities like the Dow Day “participative documentary” example on the ARIS website.
  • The ability to easily create dynamic objects is a step forward from the clunky (but pioneering) Mediascape.
  • I designed my game to have a mix of objects that were viewable on my iPhone’s map all the time along with others that were hidden or appeared after completing a task. Having a completely invisible game is likely to lead to confusion. At least consider having a starting location marked.
  • It’s just about simple enough for more able school students (and I guess most FE and HE students) to be able to create their own content. You don’t need any web development skills.
  • I think I prefer this sort of approach to other AR apps like Layar or Junaio. They’re difficult to create stuff for and cost to publish.
  • The iPhone is a much more reliable and enjoyable device for this than those nasty EDA things we used to use for Mediascape!
  • Having said that, the GPS isn’t pinpoint accurate so I had to include a fairly large margin of error (30-40m) on the placing of the objects. Having the game in a built-up environment also created problems for the GPS accuracy. Not insurmountable, but I think these games are likely to work better wheer they range over a wide area.
  • Having the iPhone as the only device that can run it is a real barrier. They suggest a possible solution for mifi and GPS-enabling iPod Touches but I’ve no idea how well these things work. An Android option would also be good but a web app would be even better.
  • I encountered a few server errors and app crashes when testing mine. I was still able to complete my “quest” but it was enough to make me feel jumpy about running this sort of activity with large numbers of students.
  • Planning and testing are really important to ensure functionality but also comprehensibility. Do game players understand what they have to achiveve and how to go about doing it? It could easily get frustrating for players without clear directions.

For all it’s problems, it’s still really good.There’s lost more stuff I’d like to try with ARIS but for reasons of time I’ll have leave it there for now.

Leave a comment if you’ve had any experience with it.