It’s August.. time for a “people can’t read a map” story

This is actually quite funny, maybe I have discovered a method of telling the time of year from the stories in the press.

This time last year, I was sitting in the studio’s of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, about to do a piece about how terrible Satellite Navigation was, and how PND’s are a threat to the continued existence of western civilisation.

Sitting next to John Humphrys is a bit scary, but he is actually a nice chap, anyway the nation was saved my defence of SatNav by the “Map Supporter” of the debate, the editor of Walking  Magazine in the UK getting lost on the way to the Radio Studio !!

So this year we have this story in the Daily Mail, reporting on some research carried out by a car insurance company, which suggests people had difficulty recognising obscure map symbols on a OS Road Map.  

Map Symbols

So what is the concern here.. I doubt actually that people could ever recognise this symbols in the first place, PND’s and in-car SatNavs have not made people less map literate, they were never map literate in this way in the first place.

Most people use a map to plan routes, from place A to B not something you need and awareness of the fact that green shading represents mud! 

Fewer people carrying maps in their cars, is a result not only on the increased use of satellite navigation, but also the use of online route planning tools like Google maps, which are often more up to date that road atlases. People also no longer carry extensive tool kits and spare parts in their cars as they would have once done.

We must remember that SatNavs are not perfect, but in almost all cases, contain the same information as road atlases, but presented in a more useable way and with the massive advantage of knowing where you are !!.

Congratulations to the insurance company for recognising the opportunity of the August quite time for the news, they won’t be getting my custom I’m afraid, but lets look forward to next Augusts story. 

Written and submitted from the SAS Radisson Hotel, Stockholm, using the free hotel WiFi

11 replies on “It’s August.. time for a “people can’t read a map” story”

With out appearing to be sexist, us men seem to think we are better at reading maps and giving driving directions than women. Before I am shot down in flames I wonder if this is true, or is it the case that we like to take control on a family day out and the map or Satnav becomes hot property?
Good map reading is an acquired skill that is little taught outside of the military and emergency services. Is there a case for teaching proper map reading in schools? After all getting lost can be expensive in terms of lost time and money, and surely the purpose of schooling is to teach children life skills as well as provide them with qualifications. With the invention of the Tom Tom and other devices there is a risk of becoming over reliant on GPS enabled devices to the extent that if the device were to fail, many would have great difficulty in navigating from A to B.

The issue of map symbols and symbology can be a real hot topic particularly as web mapping systems become more popular. Whilst we have standardisation of map symbols from Ordnance Survey and the military, many are difficult or impossible to understand without study, and to casual user of maps in an emergency such symbology is difficult or impossible to understand. I liken the current situation to weather maps of old and the weather maps of today. Rigidly sticking to one set of map symbols might appear to be fine in theory, but in practise what is important is the map reader and the intended audience. The acid test must be to provide the map reader with the information quickly in a format that can be easily understood without constant cross reference to the legend. In part this where satellite, hybrid and 3D imagery come into play particularly for people who have difficulty in visualizing a conventional map.

Duncan Garratt

I suspect that more people read maps now than ever before, it’s just a digital version. Although these digital versions don’t have the same symbology and are designed for the driver, not the walker, it surely doesn’t mean the demise of the map reading skill. As you say (Ed), the skill maybe wasn’t there in the first place. If you’re a walker and need to read a map, then you learn to do so, if you’re a driver and you need to learn to work your TOM TOM, you will do so also. After all, I don’t need to know Morse Code now, I have a telephone! I recon that we are more intelligent than these people make us out to be.

If there is a “dying art of map reading” is it just a sign of our progression? We need to drive further to get to our jobs, customers, shops and recreational facilities. To most of us walking is more of a hobby now and part of that hoby is reading a map. A bit like Ham Radio. Once state of the art communication, now a bit of fun.

On the comment from Duncan Garratt about the man/woman map reading debate. My wife insists on using the paper map, and I use sat-nav. Her map reading skill are excellent, but I, or the sat-nav, wins nearly every time. It’s rubbish on the hike up Ben Nevis though!

The real story here, I think — and which I also think most will overlook, and unfortunately so… Is what appears to be yet-another occurence of how the insurance industry often takes discussions from any industry that relates to their ‘product’, and turns that discussion into negligible ‘evidence’ as to why they need to be charging more.

Look. Is it any wonder that our own industry doesn’t often cannibalize itself in this way? The majority of the discussions I’ve seen are coming exclusively from an academic front — when, in their own lack of understanding the cause and effect, they do the industry and everyday people a disservice.

Perhaps if people got over themselves long enough, they’d realize that this is what generally plays out [in regards to insurance carriers]. It’s not unlike AP talking to a desk-jockey up at USGS about the mine disaster in Utah, and having misleading information become ‘sensationalized’ in the public. I shudder to think what ignorance would become of the result when that company’s insurance carriers drop the existing coverage, even though it’s on the top list of the safest operations in the country — and what would be the outcome? What would the miners and their families come away with?

The insurance industry will find a wedge, even from the simplist of things… And by the time you’re aware, you’ve forgotten about the root cause.

I don’t dispute that there are good map-readers from both sexes; the big question here is basic map reading skills which is an acquired skill, and is it being taught in schools or simply picked up in life as and when required? Whilst the issue in the article relates to specific symbology as a test, symbols do change depending on the maps used and country of origin. What should be at issue is the map itself, and factors such as the grid system used, projection, how to calculate distance, how to set a course or route, how to orientate a map, magnetic variation etc. GPS gadgets/plotters etc are great and make life easy, but when they fail what then! In my own experience as a qualified cartographer and someone qualified to participate in expeditions anywhere in the world including the Polar Regions, I am constantly surprised how poor map reading skills are. Yes these gadgets are great, but should not be a substitute for basic map reading skills, a compass and a paper map. As Google Earth and Virtual Earth use Latitude/Longitude perhaps a more relevant question might include.

What is Latitude and Longitude?
What does 1 minute of Latitude or Longitude represent?
What are Eastings and Northings?
How do you calculate distance using Easting and Northings?
What does a scale represent?
What is magnetic variation?
What can affect the reading of a compass bearing?
How can you tell what direction you are travelling in using the sun only?
If your GPS fails in an emergency, what grid reference do you give the emergency services in the UK or abroad?
With only a watch how could you navigate a course?

With more and more people experiencing the great outdoors how equipped are they if they get into difficulties, or are they totally reliant on gadgets? It’s an important question!

Duncan Garratt

This is all about language; nothing more and nothing less.
An individual’s knowledge and experience of a language will define to what degree they can communicate.
The cartographic symbology used on a map is a form of language; however simplistic or complex. The cartographer defines the symbology as a method for representing the real world. The map iteslf is a form of communiction model. A communication model, in order to be effective to the max, requires all participants to be agreement on the language and context. In the case of an OS map, the communication model is a one way affair: telling the reader / user about the world through the language of carto symbology. Like all languages, if you cherry pick only certain areas to use, then ultimately you will develop a lesser vocab. Great debate. Ultimately, it comes down to how much value we want to extract from the map and how much effort we are prepared to expend in doing so.

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