Getting Your Bearing In A Digital World

Posted on
There is no doubt we live in a geospatial age. We are inundated with location based data wherever we turn. While some mapping applications like OpenStreetMap appeal to targeted users, others such as Google maps, Bing Maps, Yahoo Maps and MapQuest are main stream and are accessed by millions of users every day. But are people any more spatially aware of surroundings even with these tools and GPS units in every car and smartphone?
North
North is up there
I run into people all the time who can follow a GPS that says turn right on Smith street but couldn’t tell you what directions Smith street runs to save their lives. It could be said that we are actually losing our directional abilities. Google maps doesn’t even give bearing throughout your route. There is only one bearing at the beginning of the directions. The rest of your route is made up of “Left”, “Right”, and “Take Exit…”
Okay, so what? If we have the tools to get us from point A to point B, why should we care if our driving map has a compass rose on it? Well, here are three reasons I think directional aptitude is still important:
  1. Mapping technology is unreliable. Online maps are only as good as the data human beings put into them.
  2. Data may not always be available. Even with mobile technology there are times when digital maps and directions will not be at your fingertips. Batteries die, charging cables are forgotten and phones are left behind on counters.
  3. Having your bearing is a safety issue. Knowing your location relative to another location can be a matter of safety. Emergency services can find you easier if they know you are north or south of a particular intersection.
Map meeting
So how can directionaly challenged individuals build back their sense of bearing? Here are three things that might help:
  1. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Knowing just this piece of information can help a person get their bearing for a good portion of the day. Face a rising sun and west is behind you , north is to your left and south is to your right. With practice, directional orientation will become second nature.
  2. In town, pay attention to N,S,E,W on street signs. That paired with increasing or decreasing block numbers will give you a direction.
  3. Get in the habit of using paper maps. You will remember street names and landmarks in relation to a map’s compass rose.
Modern computer mapping has revolutionized our world today. While the internet and geospatial technologies are indispensable in much of our daily lives they have also taken away some of our ability to think for ourselves. Fortunately it is not difficult to reclaim that lost territory.