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Don’t Throw Away Your Paper Maps Just Yet

• March 22, 2010 • 5:00 AM

While GPS can tell you exactly where you stand, sometimes it takes a bit of dead-tree cartography to tell you where you are.

Pity the poor paper map. Once admired for its accuracy, it is now scorned for being less precise than digital maps and hopelessly passé when compared to handheld GPS and satellite navigation systems.

Many government agencies and longtime private sector cartographers have stopped or slowed production of paper maps, including the California State Automobile Association, which produced maps that are the standard of excellence for road maps around the world and closed down its mapmaking division at the end of 2008. The U.S. and Canadian governments have greatly reduced paper map production, as have Rand McNally and Thomas Brothers, which joined forces.

But the rush to online mapping is causing some problems. Studies by the British Cartographic Society show that high-tech maps get the user from Point A to Point B but leave off traditional features such as historical landmarks, government buildings and cultural institutions; this could lead to a loss of cultural and geographic literacy, the august body warns.

“When discussing maps of any kind, it’s important to note the big difference between precise and accurate,” cautions Tom Harrison, veteran California cartographer and publisher of paper maps. “We have all seen times when a digital GPS device has told us that we were precisely at a street that did not exist. A device can be precise without being accurate.”

A study comparing paper map users versus GPS users yielded some surprising results. Dr. Toru Ishikawa and colleagues at the University of Tokyo found that people on foot using a GPS device make more errors and take longer to reach their destinations than people using an old-fashioned map. (Although an earlier study by Taiwanese researcher Wen-Chen Lee suggested GPS bettered paper maps in improving driving efficiency.)

Ishikawa, who specializes in human spatial behavior in an era of advanced communication technologies, says he has long been intrigued with the idea that humans act as if they have “maps in the head” that can be studied scientifically. Most surprising to him about his studies is “the existence of large individual differences in people’s abilities to comprehend surrounding environments in integrated two-dimensional form.”

Some people have very accurate internal maps, others poor ones, explains Ishikawa, whose work traverses both the fields of geography and psychology.

In Ishikawa’s latest study, three groups of participants on foot were asked to find their way to various urban locations. A third of the participants used a mobile phone with GPS capability, another third a paper map and the remainder were shown the route by a researcher before being required to navigate on their own.

The study found GPS users made more stops, walked farther and more slowly than map users and demonstrated a poorer knowledge of the terrain, topography and routes taken when asked to sketch a map after their walks. GPS users also adjudged the way-finding tasks as much more difficult than did map users. Those proving to be most proficient at navigation turned out to be those shown the route by researchers — they bested both map and GPS users by striding to destinations faster and with fewer missteps.

Why might using a GPS be inferior to the use of a paper map?

Researchers say using a GPS, which constantly updates itself, encourages people to stare down at a screen, rather than looking around at their environment. Also, the very size of the GPS screen meant it wasn’t always possible for a user to view both one’s location and destination at the same time.

Digital defenders acknowledge that using an old-fashioned technology — paper maps — might be fine while using an old-fashioned means of transport — walking — but global positioning and other in-car navigation systems are the way to go while driving. Digital maps can be more feature rich — telling you the location of the nearest Thai restaurant or gas station for example. And digital map technologies are beginning to support location-based social networking so that friends can not only make contact online but on the streets as well.

“We seem to be rushing away from using our ability to navigate in the real world,” points out mapmaker Harrison. “Rather than looking at a paper map to get a mental picture of the place we are going, we instead are putting our trust in a gizmo that looks ahead maybe three city blocks.”

Further research is necessary, explains Ishikawa, in order to determine who can make the best use of navigation information in which situation and for what purpose. While intriguing, the paper map versus digital map debate is only a small part of a much larger question: How will technological advances impact traditional ways of human cognition?

As new navigational aids are introduced, how will we — literally and figuratively — find our way?

Many — from academics to highway engineers to hike leaders — are concerned about whether the human sense of direction is fast degenerating in the digital age. “Or has it already been degraded compared to the sense of direction of ancient people who wandered around without maps?” wonders Ishikawa, whose own research suggests that the best way to navigate from one place to another is not with a paper or a digital map, but rather by having a fellow human show you the way.

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John McKinney
John McKinney is the author of 20 books about hiking, parklands and nature including "The Hiker's Way" and "A Walk Along Land's End: California on the Edge." After a long stint as the Los Angeles Times hiking columnist, John (aka The Trailmaster) now writes articles and commentaries about nature and outdoor recreation for magazines and online.

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