On the Map

By Tom Peters |

My friends and family will tell you that I’m an AMN (Amateur Map Nut).  The symptoms first appeared decades ago, before computerization.  In my office I still have (and frequently consult!) the Times Atlas of the World, the Rand McNally Atlas of the World, the MapQuest Road Atlas, the Rand McNally Road Atlas (both the current year and the 1960 version, so I can see how road networks and urban areas looked before they were sliced and diced by the interstate highway system), the AA Road Atlas of Britain, A-Z London Street Guide, and a host of state and city maps distributed free of charge by tourism offices and chambers of commerce.  I’ve even feigned being an outsider at local offices just to obtain maps.  I’m an AMN, tried and true.

The real map action these days, however, is online.  The value of maps as online reference tools is rising.   I use maps quite often to answer incoming SMS text message reference questions posed to the My Info Quest collaborative reference service. Most self-respecting mash-ups contain a map component, and augmented reality systems rely heavily on maps, too. 

Google Maps is on my short list of essential browser links.  Google Earth I use more for fun and exploration rather than real reference work.  Google Maps on my smartphone helped me in a pinch during a trip to Dallas this summer.  I’ve experimented with Bing Maps and used MapQuest quite a bit in the past, but, when it comes to online maps, I seem have fallen into the Google lockstep.

PC World recently ran an article comparing the good, the bad, and the ugly of Google Maps, MapQuest, and Bing Maps, the three contenders for the hearts and minds of John & Jane Q Public (http://www.pcworld.com/article/206702-2/which_online_mapping_service_is_best.html).  They rated Google Maps the overall winner.  I read the article and comments with interest, of course, and began creating a checklist of what I like and dislike about these three online map services, both as an AMN and as a librarian. 

The obvious, of course, is that all three are free, in the sense of no out-of-pocket expense to use them.  Each offers so many features that it’s possible to write a dissertation about the features and applications of this trio.  I’ll stick to the personal highlights here.

Satellite images and street views are essential complements to the maps, and the currentness of the images are important.  The outdatedness of the Bing image of Monkey Mountain and environs, where I live, turned me off to Bing.  I know for a fact that the Bing image is at least 2.5 years old, while the Google satellite image of my area was taken in late April or early May of this year.  The MapQuest image of my area is pretty old, too.  Results vary, of course, from one geographic area to another and over time as the patchwork quilt of satellite, aerial, and street images are updated.  (FYI, the satellite images of downtown San Diego, site of ALA Midwinter, are more recent in Google than in Bing.  Check out the building under construction at 9th and Ash.)  I wish all three services would clearly indicate when a given satellite image or street view was taken. 
Clarity and zoomability of the images matter, too.  How far in can you zoom and still have a clear image?  In the Google Maps image of my place, when in “Earth” view I can zoom in so far I can see the serpentine garden hose lying on the ground on the south side of the house.  By the bye, I wish those satellite imaging services would post a schedule of future snapshots from space, so I could tidy up a bit outside beforehand.
Finding an exact location always is a challenge, and the accuracy of these online mapping services leaves something to be desired.  One time I was going to pick up some lawn chairs that my wife had discovered on Craig’s List.  The Google Maps address put me over a mile from where I actually needed to be, resulting in a sheepish call to the seller asking for specific directions.  I imagine she thought to herself, “What a Luddite!  Why didn’t he Google Map the address?” 

Another aggravating situation:  looking for the address of a business that’s somewhere near a busy intersection, where it matters whether you’re in the left, center, or right lane as you approach the intersection, and having Google Maps pinpoint the address smack dab in the center of the intersection.  When you’re surrounded on all four sides by a sea of strip malls, being directed to the heart of the intersection isn’t much help.

No matter where you obtain them, directions always should be taken with a grain of salt.  MapQuest let’s you choose between the shortest distance or the shortest travel time between two locations, and it allows you to avoid highways, toll roads, and seasonally closed roads, such as the Donner Pass in winter and 7th Avenue during the Macy’s Parade on Thanksgiving Day.  One nice aspect of the directions feature of Google Maps is the option to choose car, public transit, walking, or biking as your mode of transportation.  That feature is great when visiting a city for a conference.  The Bing Maps directions interface also offers a convenient driving, transit, or walking dropdown menu. 

Time-sensitive information displayed on maps, such as traffic, construction, and accidents, can be very beneficial, if it is accurate and current.  Because my daily commute to work is only about 30 paces, I don’t often use traffic overlays, but the few times I’ve tried it on Google Maps, the information was not current.  I’ve been at a dead stop on the freeway when I pulled up Google Maps only to see green lines in both directions.  

Gentle Reader, you may be thinking that, while online maps have come a long way, GPS is the mobile future.  I can answer only with an anecdote.  One time I was taking a cab in Anaheim.  I got in the cab and gave the cabbie my destination address, which he promptly entered into his GPS system.  As we neared the destination, his attention increasingly focused on the GPS screen, which was incorrect.  I was looking out the window and could clearly identify the destination.  It took him a few minutes and a couple of u-turns to get me there.  Moral of story:  Reality trumps both maps and GPS.  Many an invading army has learned the hard way that knowledge of the actual terrain always beats the best mapping and GPS systems.