Monday, 1 November 2010


I love maps. I can stare at them for hours, visualising the twisting contours as hills and valleys. Each footpath advertises an adventure, and the dotted strings of diamonds that denote trails call me like sirens.

The best way of interacting with a map is simply to go out and walk around the landscape it represents. To see the rivers and stroll through the woodland and forests. Yet do this for any period and it becomes clear that what is shown on the map is only a loose facsimile of reality. The world changes, yet maps only get updated irregularly. Woodland gets cleared or planted; roads and houses get built. Footpaths that are clear on the map end abruptly in a bottomless quagmire.

There is nothing stranger than discovering a road or railway line that is not marked on the map - it causes a very strange sense of locational paralysis, of having gone through the looking glass. The maps says that the feature should not be there, and you trust your maps: yet here, right in front of your eyes, is the feature. Your cosy, safe reality has been altered. It is easy to accept that hedges move and new housing encroaches onto what were once green fields. Yet come across a motorway that is not marked on the map and you start to feel that you have gone seriously wrong somewhere. It can be an almost frightening experience.

This is, of course, because paper maps only get updated every few years; it is cheaper to print them in batches. For this reason, changes on the ground take some time to appear on the maps available for purchase. Electronic maps, of course, need not have that problem.

One thing is clear: the printed map is dying. Handeld devices such as Satmap are getting to the stage where they can feasibly replace paper maps for walking. Batteries can run out, and electronic devices are always prone to the perils of cold, water and damage. Against this, however, are the problems of lugging the many maps that are needed for long-distance walks.

I love the raw physicality of having a paper map in my hands. Electronic maps are so much more useful in many ways: the data displayed can be filtered, enhanced and scaled, but they lack a certain physical presence. If I want to mentally explore an area then I spread out a 1:50,000 OS map on a table rather then look at the 1:25,000 maps on my computer. The area that can be viewed at once is so much bigger, giving you context for the central area you are viewing. There is always something to see.

That is not to bash electronic maps. Google maps (and the Microsoft equivalent, Bing Maps) are excellent products, and the ability to add user-derived data (i.e. mashup) to the maps brings a new dimension to cartography. However, the data shown in the UK is several orders of magnitude worse than those on OS maps. The OS do allow electronic maps to be loaded from their website to create mashups, but the licensing restrictions are such that the service is not really suitable for my purposes. For one thing they restrict the amount of data that can be downloaded; as my website gets thousands of readers it would soon exceed that figure. The system is also less seamless than those from Microsoft and Google. The ideal would be for the larger companies to have access to the OS data for their implementations, but that could potentially endanger the existence of the OS.

My website already includes a mashup depicting my walks over Google maps; perhaps in the future the data will be much more open: I will be able to show pubs in the area of the map, filtering out ones that are closed at a certain time of day; the same with cafes, slipways for launching a boat, cycle paths, museums, campsites, petrol stations and train times.

We are very nearly there, the main problem being the diverse locations of the data sets. You need to go to one website to find some pubs; another for petrol station, and another for museums. Even then the data sets tend to be incomplete. But how long will it be before a device like the Satmap could connect to the Internet, download pubs nearest to your present location and display which ones are open? Will you even be able to order some food so that it is ready when you walk in through the door? This is all technically feasible.

Yet I hope that we do not lose the skills of map reading and navigation. To do so would be to lose a truly great joy in life.

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