I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard

On near-replacements for navigational skills

2013-01-16 by Nick S., tagged as dependence, transport

Over the past couple of months, I've come across a few stories of mis-adventures with maps. The first involved a man who blamed his GPS for guiding him to the wrong side of the road. The second involved the discovery that an island appearing on several maps in the Coral Sea does not appear to exist. The third involved "Apple Map Disasters" reported in the February 2013 edition of APC Magazine (p. 15). The first two of these stories amazed me for different, but perhaps related, reasons, while the third provides something of an explanation.

The driver involved in the wrong-side-of-the-road episode presumably allowed his technological assistance to over-ride his pre-GPS-navigator skills of reading road signs and following road markings. One or two of the commentators in the story also blame "distraction", which I also believe to be a hallmark of poor user interfaces. Either way, technology has frustrated a skill possessed by any competent driver.

An unnamed APC staff member seemes to have suffered a similar lapse when Apple Maps' guidance led him to lug his equipment for ten minutes in the wrong direction down a street. On any ordinary Australian street, a simple glance at the street numbers would have told him the correct direction in which to go. Here, indeed, seems to be a pair of cases in which technology has made us stupid by causing its users to overlook their own skills in favour of technology that is not, in fact, adequate to replace them.

The existence or not of obscure islands sounds like a problem out of the seventeenth century, except that we now have Google Maps to blame. The Sydney Morning Herald, which seems to have broken the story, made much of the fact that Google Maps records a "Sandy Island" in the Coral Sea that could not be found by a recent scientific expedition. The story was consequently picked up as "IT news" by The Register and IEEE Spectrum. Shaun Higgins of the Auckland Museum (among others), however, points out that the supposed island pre-dates Google Maps, and, indeed, any computerised mapping system. It seems that Google Maps was simply repeating an error made by cartographers for a hundred years or more, yet news outlets interpreted the whole thing as an "IT glitch". (I should point out that all is not lost: the Sydney Morning Herald itself followed up with Shaun Higgins' explanation, and numerous commenters on The Register offered plausible suggestions on how the error might have come about without Google's intervention.)

APC quotes an explanation of Apple Maps' problems given by Mike Dobson. Apple, he thinks, relied on computerised quality-assurance algorithms without any human oversight to check that the algorithms themselves were correct. News outlets presuming Google Maps to be the source of all cartographic knowledge, I think, risk falling into a similar trap.

Ordinary users, I suppose, could arguably be forgiven for presuming that the products of big-name companies like Google, Apple and in-car navigation manufacturers meet certain standards of quality. Yet we all know that technology makers are fallible, and that even a device that performs one task well might not perform a related one at all. Perhaps "trust, but verify" would be better advice?