For many years I have relied on electronic maps to help me understand the world, to discover new places to visit, and to find my way around. One stereotype of today’s generation is that we just use a satnav to get from A to B and accept whatever it gives us without really understanding where we are going. But that is not my experience.

Recently, the Royal Auto published an article entitled Why printed maps are not dead yet. And what struck me was that almost everything it presented as a benefit of paper maps was something that I did with electronic maps. Yes, if your idea of getting from A to B is asking Google Maps or a satnav what’s the best way to get there, you may miss things. But electronic maps can be used for so much more. Here are a few of the benefits I see of using Google Maps to plan a trip:

  • I can zoom to any scale I want, whether to check a small section of the route or to see the entire route on one screen. No more being tied to the scale of the atlas I’m using, and no more dealing with places that are on the corner of a page.
  • I can use it almost anywhere.
  • I can plan for trips in states and countries that I don’t have an atlas for. Or even just visualise their place in the world.
  • I can look at different route options, tweak the route as I see fit, and actually see the route drawn on the map. Then, I can turn that route into a list of directions.
  • I can get an idea of how much longer different routes take. A 10 minute diversion may add that charming destination I’m glad I stopped for, while a three hour diversion may mean endless frustration on narrow and uninteresting roads and only arriving after the campsite office has been closed. Or it could be the trigger for spending more time exploring that area and being able to really appreciate it.
  • For local trips, I can look at live traffic information to see if anything unexpected is happening (I find at work one of the surest indications someone is about to go home is when they start looking at traffic maps).
  • With street view, I can see exactly what a street or house looks like.

So I think Google Maps is a success, and it’s originally an Australian success. When Google bought it, they kept much of the development in Australia and made it the basis of their Australian office. Yes, unfortunately it’s in the camp of our bitter rivals the Sydneysiders, but you can’t have everything.

I am more likely to use satnav on longer trips, particularly interstate or international trips. But even then I am likely to have some idea of the route planned, where I might want to stop and take a break, and where I might want to deviate from the planned route. And Google Maps will be where I got those plans from.

One of the biggest changes I made to my map usage last year was getting offline maps for my phone (I use OSMAnd). I’ve removed some of the maps I used in Europe, but even so if I were dropped anywhere in Australia, England, Scotland, or Wales, I would have a map in my pocket telling me exactly where I was. Not being a map and compass person, I thought this would be necessary for completing the Pennine Way, and it certainly proved its worth. One of the biggest features phone maps add that paper maps don’t have is the “Where am I?” option (otherwise known as GPS). Yes, it’s not perfect. Sometimes it takes longer than I want to find where I am. Sometimes it doesn’t quite locate me correctly. But there were several times when I believed I was following the map correctly and was actually on the wrong trail, and my phone showed me. Who knows how long I would have kept going the wrong way without it?

I’ve used OSMAnd a little as a satnav device, and find it OK but not great. Sometimes it has taken me on surprising routes, other times it has just been annoying. Where I find it really shines is when walking. For minor trails and shortcuts, OpenStreetMap often has better coverage than Google Maps. And, from a planning point of view, it gives me the freedom to make up or change my plans on the spot. I used to do that anyway and hope I could get back OK, but now I can see “If I take this trail, then I’ll be able to end up back here after taking those three trails and passing the lake”. It’s still possible that one of those trails is inclined at a 55 degree angle, overgrown, or otherwise troublesome, but what would life be without a bit of risk? Battery life is a possible issue, though I have never had a mapping device run out of battery when I needed it. But really, not having the map you want with you the second you want it sounds like more of an issue to me.

Back to the Royal Auto article, I still carry a Melway in my car. From force of habit as much as anything else. But if I need it, I have a complete map of Melbourne on my phone. If I were hopelessly lost in Melbourne (but sufficiently unlost to be able to find where I was in Melway) its larger map size might make it easier to find a new route than on my phone. So long as I wasn’t currently in the bottom right of one map, and my destination in the top left 2.5 maps and 20 pages away.

Yes, the technology doesn’t replicate every single feature of paper maps. But there are so many features that electronic maps add that I rely on daily that I almost always use one, even for tasks that people think need a paper map. The RoyalAuto article claims “Internet mapping is about finding the most direct, and usually quickest route”. I think that’s just wrong. It’s certainly one of the convenient features that Internet mapping provides. But it also gives you the ability to explore your surroundings in a way I find better than paper maps. If people lose spatial awareness, I think that says more about how they use electronic maps than showing something wrong with the maps themselves. My spatial awareness has gone up significantly since I started routinely using Google Maps.

I think maps are one of technology’s biggest success stories. And long may they continue showing us the world around us.