Paper or digital? How do you want your map?

Mobile map apps are big business, but do they help or hurt our geographical literacy?

Kai Ryssdal: The key thing about all those location-based mobile services, of course, is the map. Good, detailed -- digital -- maps.

Speaking of which, there's a bit of a cartography arms race afoot. Google Maps announced big upgrades this week, just as Apple seems set to kick Google Maps off the iPhone and do maps on its own.

But before technology gets too far ahead of us, it's worth remembering digital maps aren't always better than good old paper ones, or even a real live person. Marketplace's Eve Troeh has that story.


Eve Troeh: Here's a simple question: How do I get to the nearest coffee shop from the Marketplace studios?

Head out the door, you head north, take the, uh, second floor pathway. You go over this skywalk thing, where there might or might not be a bunch of kids playing. Walk past them, into the door. Through the World Trade Center. This is kind of complicated.

Well Google Maps says: Walk two blocks, turn left.

Think I could find it that way?

Marcello Sawyer: No, not at all.

Because the map doesn't know the coffee shop is buried, deep inside a building.

Technology writer Chris Null says he'd be that guy looking down at his smartphone, totally lost.

Chris Null: Probably have to send the rescue dogs out to get me.

And that drives his wife kinda crazy. When they're driving, he relies on digital navigation.

Null: But she believes I need to have a better sense of where I'm going. Of course I don't think I'm going to generate that at the age of 40.

And that's the concern: The better digital maps get, the worse we get at navigating with just our brains.

But Charlie Regan at National Geographic Maps doesn't see it that way. He says map use -- geographical literacy, if you will -- is improving worldwide.

Chris Regan: My 5-year-old knows how to read a map, and I didn't need to sit down and teach him. He just watches when we're in the car.

Regan says for everyday driving, paper maps are pretty much extinct. But people still need them for planning long distance trips, or research, or recreation -- like hiking or boating.

Regan: It's not an either/or, "Do I need a print map or a digital app?" It's an "and."

In fact, he says, the more new digital maps National Geographic creates, the more customers want a print version, too.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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