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The Impact of the Proliferation of GIS/GPS Technologies on Geographic Thought and Directionality | Siobhan Finnerty

Since the proliferation of GPS technology and the presence of map apps on most smartphones have made it easier than ever to locate where you are in the world, more and more people are using navigation devices on a daily basis. This is great for efficient transportation to work/school, for comparing multiple routes, and for exploring new places; but has unknown consequences for classical navigation technologies and geographical thought. How do "maps" apps affect how we interact with paper maps? How does it affect our ability to give directions? To know our way around the cities in which we live? To expand the mental maps we create of our lives? How does it shape our geographic identity?

To begin to answer some of these questions on the role that geography-- and especially cartography and GIS technology-- plays in our daily lives in the digital age, we at the GWU Geography Department Blog conducted a voluntary anonymous survey of 26 college-age students from around the United States via the internet to determine how students across the country perceive the effects of geographic information technologies on their lives.

Here we will share the results of this survey and provide some brief analysis on the findings of each question we asked of our participants. This survey is not meant to be academic nor lead to any concrete answers, its purpose is merely to gauge the view of college students throughout the United States in how map apps influence their lives and their geographic thinking. From this, we may be able to identify the connections and relationships to inform further studies of this phenomenon.

  1. How often do you use “map apps” (like GoogleMaps, Apple Maps, Quando, Waze, HERE WeGo, etc)?

Over 50% of respondents reported using map apps over 7 times per week. Only 11.5% of respondents reported using map apps once a week or less. This indicates a reliance on these map apps for college age students, most likely due to their presence on smartphones.

  1. Do you think you would use map apps as frequently if they did not contain GPS technology and could not tell you where you are?

Overwhelmingly, 84.6% of respondents reported that they would not use these map apps as frequently if they did not contain GPS technology. This means that GPS technology is an operational factor in why these map apps have gained traction. It also means that a main reason why college age students utilize these apps is to aid in locating themselves on these map apps. This would indicate a poorer sense of location in these students in the sense that they are less able to accurately locate themselves on a map.

  1. When you do use map apps, where are you going? (multiple answers accepted)

100% of respondents reported they used map apps when they went somewhere new outside of their home town/city/state. Nearly all (92.3%) respondents reported they used map apps also when they went somewhere new within their home town/city/state. 30.8% of respondents each indicated that they would use map apps to go to home and work, while 26.9% indicated they would use map apps to get to school. This indicates that the ability to expand their mental maps to include ways home, to work, and to school may have been impeded by the accessibility of map apps which provide that map—complete with GPS ability.

  1. Why do you use map apps for navigation in getting to these places? (multiple answers accepted)

80.8% of respondents reported that these map apps measure distances and provide time estimates, as a primary reason in why they are being used for navigation. However, 69.2% of respondents also reported that they would not be able to get from Point A to Point B without these apps. Due to the anonymity of this survey, we do not know if these 69.2% of respondents include the 30.8% who reported utilizing these map apps to get to home and work. However, the preference of college students to have GPS map apps determine directions for them indicates a reliance on the technology, and a lack of practice in utilizing our ingrained mental maps.

  1. Would you be able to get yourself where you need to be without the help of these map apps?

Only 7.7% of respondents indicated that they would not be able to get where they need to be without these apps. 15.4% indicated confidently “yes” that they would be able to find their way. However, 77% of respondents responded that it “depends” or they “maybe” would be able to find their way. The lack of confidence in directional ability indicates that these map apps have left college students questioning their ability to find their way sans GPS map apps.

  1. Would you be able to give directions for getting around your town/city/state to someone from out of town?

The results to this question are interestingly juxtaposed against the results to the previous question. While only 15.4% indicated “yes” they would be able to find their own way, 57.7% indicated they would be able to give directions to visitors to their own town/city/state. This indicates that the lack of confidence in directional ability is solely for the student themselves, while they retain the ability to orient themselves and direct others. This reaffirms the belief that their accessibility on our persons at all times causes this proliferating usage.

  1. When was the last time you used a paper map for navigational purposes?

Exactly 50% of respondents reported only using a paper map for navigational purposes “years ago” or “unknown, if ever.” 48% reported using a paper map in the past year—but only 11.5% in the past week, and an additional 11.5% in the past month. This is expected, for map apps have reduced the necessity to use paper maps for navigational purposes, thus decreasing the frequency of their use.

  1. Why did you opt for a paper map over these map apps?

Only 16% of respondents opted for a paper map “by choice”—with one indicating it was “for the novelty and humor of the concept”, while 44% only opted for a paper map because map apps were unavailable. Over a quarter of respondents used a paper map only due to the special circumstances of the area being traversed, for they were either hiking/skiing (topographical) maps or museum/event/tourist maps. There remain areas where paper maps are preferable to map apps, keeping paper maps valuable—until technological advances add clear topographic features to directional apps and/or museums and events add map features to their apps.

  1. Do you own a paper map of the town/city/state in which you live?

61.5% of respondents reported that they did not own a paper map of the town/city/state where they live. This indicates that in cases of local knowledge, map apps may have replaced the need for paper maps. However, as the statistics for this question before the proliferation of map apps are not known, this could also indicate that local geographic knowledge still exists and nullifies the need for a paper map.

  1. Could you figure out which way is N/S/E/W at any given time?

38.5% of respondents indicated that “no” they could not figure out which way is N/S/E/W at any given time. This is contrasted with 19.2% who indicated “yes” they could. The remainder were uncertain of their confidence in their sense of direction, indicating that map apps take away the necessity of knowing how to determine cardinal directions, and lessen the need for college age students to determine these themselves (without the help of map apps). The impact this has on their ability to find their way is unknown.

  1. Would you say you have a good sense of direction?

Interestingly compared to the last question, 69.2% of respondents reported that they think they have a good sense of direction. Only 30.8% cast doubt on their directional abilities. This indicates that the presence of map apps and their widespread use has increased confidence in a person’s sense of direction (provided the use of map apps).

  1. Do you think the accessibility of these map apps have made your sense of direction better or worse?

80.8% of respondents reported that their sense of direction has improved since the accessibility of these map apps have proliferated. This clarifies the results of the previous question, for it indicates that the operational factor in the perceived improvement of sense of direction for college age students is the accessibility of these map apps.

  1. Do you think the accessibility of these map apps have made it easier to get where you need to go?

100% of respondents said that “yes,” that the accessibility of these map apps has made getting around easier—meaning that they are likely not going to be going out of fashion, nor will paper maps replace them anytime soon.

 

The key findings of this survey were:

  • College age students tend to rely on map apps in getting from place to place.
  • The capability of map apps to use GPS technology to locate the user on a map is an operational factor in why college students rely on these map apps.
  • The accessibility of map apps in directing students to school, work, home, and new places inhibits the ability of college age students to expand their mental maps and determine their own way.
  • This reliance causes a lack of confidence in directional ability when the GPS-equipped map apps are taken away. However, this lack of confidence holds only to the student in a familiar place—with no impact on their ability to direct others around familiar areas.
  • Map apps have reduced the necessity of paper maps for navigational purposes, yet there remain thematic areas (topographic, event, building) where paper maps are preferred to map apps.
  • The access to and reliance on GPS-equipped map apps have increased self-confidence in a user’s own sense of direction (allowed the use of these tools at their disposal).
  • The accessibility of these map apps has absolutely made getting around easier.

 

Further research could be done on the relationship between map apps use and the use of one’s own sense of direction to find their own way sans GPS technology. The proliferation of GPS (and other GIS) technologies will only continue as the tech age goes on, bringing much good to the world through humanitarian rescue efforts and making it much easier for college students to find their way on a daily basis.

 

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