When digital maps are wrong

If maps help us make spatial and social sense of our places and world, what happens when they are wrong?

Another factor in the paper versus digital debate is accuracy. Obviously, a good digital map is better than a bad paper map, just like a good paper map is better than a bad digital map.

Technochauvinists may believe that all digital maps are good, but just as in the paper world, the accuracy of digital maps depends entirely on the level of detail and fact-checking invested by the company making the map.

For example, a 2012 survey by the crowdsourcing company Crowdflower found that Google Maps accurately located 89 percent of businesses, while Apple Maps correctly found 74 percent. This isn’t surprising, as Google invests millions in sending people around the world to map terrain for Google StreetView. Google Maps are good because the company invests time, money, and human effort in making its maps good—not because digital maps are inherently better…

In my view, it’s easier to forgive the errors in a paper map. Physical maps usually include an easily visible publication date so users can see when the map was published. (When was the last time you noticed the date-of-last-update on your car navigation system?) When you are passively following the spoken GPS directions of a navigation system, and there is, say, an unmarked exit, it confuses the GPS system and causes chaos among the people in the car. (Especially the backseat drivers.)

The general argument of this piece (and the larger book) appears to be that we should not become too reliant on digital sources of information. We tend to think that digital sources of information are inherently more correct or less prone to error. So, if the digital map is wrong, we might be very surprised.

I recently thought of this myself as we purchased a vehicle with a built-in navigation system. When going through the options in the map menus, I noticed the map had a date from several years ago. When at the dealer a few weeks back, I noticed they had a sign up explaining how to update the maps. I hope to do that soon.

On the other hand, the advantage of digital systems is that our brains can offload some of the work of navigating or understanding a place by relying on a digital map or navigation system. We make use of distributed cognition in many ways, including through the use of paper maps.

Of course, upping and maintaining the accuracy of digital maps is an ongoing task and there is much at risk. All systems have the risk of failure and perhaps the biggest issue here is that we do not assume the digital map is always right.

One thought on “When digital maps are wrong

  1. Pingback: Google Maps and more overlaid on what you see in front of you | Legally Sociable

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