Why Digital Maps Aren't Ready To Replace Paper

With the rise of smartphones, millions of people have tossed away their paper maps, instead relying on GPS and mapping apps on our phones to find a restaurant or plan a road trip. But is that really a good thing?

Surprisingly enough, there’s a lot of academic research into the digital versus paper maps issue. Paul Clough, Senior Lecturer in the Information School at the University of Sheffield, conducted one of these  studies and found that, aside from the fact that we still like paper versions of things (books, magazines), we trust paper maps more. Whether it’s because of technical difficulties with apps, or fear of running out of battery power, the usability and reliability of paper maps still fare better than digital. Even if you do look like a freakin' tourist if you unfold a paper map on a city street.

Apple Maps Isn't The Only Epic Fail

As you well know, last year's introduction of Apple Maps was an epic failure. Missing bridges, improperly placed landmarks, directions to places that never existed and stranded tourists topped the list of Apple Map fails. A life-endangering situation befell a group in Australia when they were following directions to what they had believed to be Mildura, a vibrant city of 30,000 people in Victoria. Instead, they ended up stranded for 24 hours in a national park in the outback wilderness - in 115-degree heat with no food or water. Turns out that Apple Maps plotted the city of Mildura 40 miles away from its actual location. 

But Apple can't be blamed for last week super-duper-epic-digital-mapping fail: The USS Guardian ran aground on a reef in the Philippine Sea. The Tubbataha Reef is an environmentally sensitive natural park, and the Guardian was navigating through the area without the clearance. When officials informed the Guardian that it had entered a restricted area, and would have to be boarded and inspected, the ship replied: “Take it to the U.S. Embassy.” And then it hit the reef and got stuck.

No one was injured and no fuel oil leaked, but the damage to the reef may be extensive. And the Navy has decided to scrap the $277 milllion ship, cutting it into three parts to remove it from the reef without further damage. Plus, the U.S. is facing huge fines and an investigation from the Philippine government. 

So what's the connection to digital maps?

A few days after the incident, the Navy revealed that the digital maps the Guardian used to navigate misplaced the reef by about eight nautical miles, a little more than 9 miles. The Navy has since advised other ships to compare electronic charts to paper ones before following directions.

Durable And Valuable 

Dr. Clough said in an email to ReadWrite that experts and professionals in certain fields, including military personnel, often value paper more than digital mapping software. His study found that while users liked digital maps for planning short and long distance travel, when it came to traveling on foot, paper was preferred due to its durability and portability. 

Not to say that digital mapping isn't more than good enough for most applications. But it may be a good idea for users to refrain from putting their complete trust and faith in any mapping app. Having a paper backup plan may be a good idea. 

Clough pointed out the irony of the common practice of printing out Google Maps as a convenient backup when navigating. He added, “ I think paper is here to stay for the foreseeable future.”