The Fox and Tumulus

I recently read an article by Tom Cox at The Guardian on his preference for paper maps over satellite navigation devices, citing his adoration for OS maps.
So, who better to debate this topic than an OS cartographer with a fondness for maps in their digital form, I thought.

First of all there are the many romantic suggestions made by Tom that I completely understand and agree with. A well-made paper map, in particular an OS one, does have the ability to ‘reveal the secrets of the landscape’. With the help of underlying data from national mapping agencies, it offers a wealth of information that you still cannot find on mass electronic mapping, especially in the traditional OS marketplace of the great outdoors. Indeed it is for this very reason that Ordnance Survey is launching OS Maps, a web-based map service that can be ran as a mobile app and is tailored to meet the needs of the outdoor enthusiast.

An OS map brings out the explorer, the adventurer in someone. As Tom puts it, ‘There’s something very liberating about looking on a map and seeing, say, something called Alecock’s Grave a mile to your east, then thinking, “I’d quite like to know what Alecock’s Grave is”, then thinking: “HOLD ON! I actually can go and see Alecock’s Grave and nobody is going to stop me!”‘.

But at what point does cartography become too romantic; when is it too much fairytale and not enough useful information?

Whilst I am proud of the maps we create at OS and I do not own a dedicated sat nav, I must confess that I am a Google Maps on Android user and I have to say I use it quite a lot.

Generally I find my way around the country without it but when going somewhere new, complex or urgent it finds me the quickest route based on live traffic and self-updating road information. There is also the data-linking based on arguably the World’s biggest search, location and review database. While the urban benefits are obvious (I hope), might I add that not always but sometimes it even beats paper in remote areas, e.g. ski routes.

I actually find most paper maps somewhat cumbersome for navigation.

I think traditionalists make too much of paper maps, trying to protect some kind of heritage. Even for a country walk, I’d rather just enjoy the view and fresh air without folding and reading a gigantic piece of paper! I might even argue against Tom Cox and suggest that I’d find a smartphone substantially less obtrusive.

Obviously there is the problem of reliability: A paper map will not lose signal and in truth will rarely let you down. As the armed forces point out, even a bullet hole through a paper map and it is still useable. But for me, where paper maps still rule is in trip planning and as a backup, rather than as a direct navigational tool.

Even though I do a lot of holiday trip planning in Bing, Google, HERE Maps and others, I always end up printing it out because of (1) Accessiblity, and (2) Scale. Sometimes paper is just easier to read, to see surrounding context for example. To fit a reasonable geographic extent on screen would require us all to be map reading on our 50-inch living room televisions!

There is also a tendancy for not just map readers but cartographers to be too nostalgic in their decision making. In my upcoming International Cartographic Conference paper, I argue the relevance of a cartographer in a data-centric marketplace; yet perhaps one thing web and mobile developers have shown us cartographers is that we have developed a habit of over-embellishing our products. This may well lead to some beautiful creations and artistry but it we must be careful. Not only because unneccessary clutter makes maps harder to read but also because, you see, if we go too far, a paper map can have the same transportational abilities as a good book. It has the potential to transport you to a different world, something far removed from the scenary around you.

I agree with Tom that an OS Explorer Map is a great source of inspiration for exploring the countryside. It is an unbeatable source of reference. But equally I am convinced that electronic devices have their place as has been proved with outdoor activites such as cycling and that many mobile devices in my view make navigation easier. Yet my personal preference for the great outdoors remains to go hands, paper and gadget-free; to explore with all my senses and just have the paper map and smartphone with me in a bag incase.

Read Tom’s article ‘Forget satnav — give me a good old-fashioned map any time’ here.


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