Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Geospatial Revolution: Are You Ready?

With smartphones becoming part of the everyday life for a big portion of the population, geospatial technology is booming and becoming more mainstream.  Our smartphones can do all sorts of whiz-bang stuff that only handheld GPS units, or PNDs (personal navigation devices), could do before.  Your iPhone or Android shows where you are on the map, which way you're pointing the phone, and tells you how to get to your desired destination.  Not only that, but smartphones have a "geosocial" function that GPSs/PNDs can't do, like show where on the map all your friends and family are located (and describe step-by-step how to get to them).  But with this so-called "geospatial revolution", here are some words of caution.

Most smartphones do not have the accuracy of true GPS units.  At least not yet, anyway.  Smartphones generally rely on cell towers for navigation rather than satellites.  In areas of good 3G/4G coverage, they work reasonably well, though I've still observed a delay of 10 seconds even with a good "lock" when driving down a road.  That's enough to make you miss your turn if you're relying on voice navigation from your smartphone.  Things fall apart in "edge network" coverage (that includes where I live in Girdwood and even parts of Anchorage), where you're lucky to get your position within a mile.  And guess what happens when there's no cell phone coverage?  No location at all!  I really hope people aren't using their smartphones to navigate through the wilderness.  The results could be disastrous.  Handheld GPS units are the smarter choice because they rely on satellites rather than cell towers, though even they can have issues when it's cloudy or in areas of steep terrain.

Battery life.  The battery life of smartphones, frankly, sucks.  And the battery life is way worse when you're in navigation mode or one of your apps is using navigation in the background.  And if you're in the wilderness, you can't just recharge your smartphone at any time.  The battery life of handheld GPS units is a little better, but it's always smart to have spare batteries. And most importantly, have a paper map as a backup and know how to use it!  Smartphones simply must get much better battery life, and fast, to take advantage of the geospatial technology boom, or else consumers will be turned off all-together to the new technology.  Apple, Google, are you listening?

Getting down to the core of the issue, I worry that the whole rapid integration of technology into geography is not going to work nearly as well as it could because of the geographic ignorance of our society.  To illustrate this geographic ignorance, did you know that many people think that the satellite imagery in Google Earth is real-time?  I wish!  I fear people will blindly rely on their device's commands to tell them where to go, so much so that people will drive their vehicles off a cliff because their device told them to do it.  I also fear people will get lost more and more in the wilderness because of the "false comfort" that the device provides them, and their inability to truly "read the terrain".  Bottom line, people must have a basic core geographic knowledge and instinct to take advantage of new amazing technology.

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