Teaching Geography With Google Maps

Google Maps
Travelers aren’t born, they’re raised.

Last week we talked about how to connect with your kids while you’re away traveling. There are plenty of ways to get them interested in this great big world of ours while you’re both at home too. One of the best and easiest ways to fire their imagination is with Google Maps.

Like many good ideas in our family, my seven-year-old son thought of it first. He’s recently gotten into Internet Radio, especially Tonik Radio out of Dublin. Tonik and most other stations show a Google map with pointers to where their listeners are. I find it kind of freaky that our house is clearly indicated on a map for all the other listeners to see. The kid just thinks it’s cool. He’s of a generation that has always known the Information Age and thus has a whole different attitude towards privacy.

So as he listens to House and Trance he surfs the globe, looking up where the other Tonik Radio listeners are–the cluster of fans in Dublin, the farmer in Israel, and the guy in the apartment block in Sterlitimak, Russia. Zooming in with the power of satellite photography, he can see what far-off countries look like from above. In some places he can even use Google Street View.

Once he gets bored hunting down his fellow radio fans, he starts exploring the Terra Incognita of the spaces between the points. This week he conducted a close-up survey across the Pacific and happened upon the Johnston Atoll, a lonely little former U.S. military base that I had never heard of.

I also show him places where I’ve been. He got an aerial view of the amusement park in Baghdad where I ate mazgouf. When the satellite took its photo, a small plane was flying over the riverside park and left its shadow on the water of the Tigris. A week later I came into my office and he’d found it again. He’s learning to navigate.

I can even show him my past, hovering with him above the Danish farm where I was an exchange student back in my teens. I brought him up the country lane to the nearest highway and its bus stop, the same route I rode with my bike when I wanted to go to Slagelse, the nearest town. The hedge and ditch where I hid my bike before I caught the bus are still there.

Strangely, this obsession with the computer hasn’t killed his interest in regular maps or his light-up globe. So if you have a young kid who’s curious about the world, try surfing Google Maps. It’s more than a bit Orwellian, but it’s a lot of fun.

Image courtesy Google Maps, copyright 2011.

Has Google Maps ruined the art of the road trip?

I may not be old enough to remember the completion of the US Interstate system (1980), but I’m at least old enough to remember what a paper map looks like.

I’ve felt the frustration of trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube of its original folds, and have engaged in the heated front seat argument that inevitably occurs when you realize the black line that crosses the Interstate doesn’t necessarily mean it actually connects with the Interstate.

On my recent 3,600 mile “10 days, 10 states, 10 great American sights” road trip, however, I never got lost once. No wrong turns, no hopelessly unfolded maps, just a bouncing blue ball embedded in the GPS of my smartphone on a little application commonly known as Google Maps.

This, many would argue, is a good thing. You get places faster, there are no front seat arguments, and the unfathomably smart little device will lead you directly to the gates of your hotel, National Park, or even the nearest coffee shop. From this perspective, Google Maps is the best thing to ever happen to the road trip.

If it’s even possible to be 27 years old and referred to as “old-school”, however, I have to say that I respectfully disagree. In my humble, perennially making U-turns opinion, Google Maps has actually ruined the art of the road trip, and I feel compelled to tell you why.

In a thoughtful effort to get you to your destination as quickly as possible, the shiny purple line overlaid on the Google Map points you from A to B on what it calculates to be the fastest route. More times than not, this leads you directly to the nearest Interstate.

As the late Charles Kuralt once stated in his long-running CBS series, On The Road, “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything. From the Interstate, America is all steel guardrails and plastic signs, and every place looks and feels and sounds and smells like every other place.”Part of the joy of the road trip–the true American road trip such as Gadling blogger Paul Brady discovered in his Traveling the American Road series–is not in getting from here to there in the speediest possible fashion, but rather in meandering amongst the back roads that connect village with village and neighbor with neighbor. Though 21% of America’s traffic travels along the Interstate system, it still only comprises 1% of America’s road network. The other 99% is where you will find the true American spirit and scenery, yet the purple line on my smartphone is telling me to pass it by.

Furthermore, getting lost is an intrinsic element of the road trip that Google Maps has eliminated. There is something to be said about not knowing what lies around the next bend, or in happening upon a township, a restaurant, or a scenic viewpoint that you had no plans of originally visiting. Maybe a person you speak with when you stop to ask for directions turns you on to a landmark or a festival that ends up being the best part of your trip. With the bouncing blue ball of precision, however, there are no longer any amicable strangers; there will be no festivals.

In a weird way, getting lost is supposed to happen. In our ever-morphing personal scripts and story lines, it is the unexpected encounters and unforeseen turns of event that add the toppings to the vanilla of our lives. As the ancient Greek philosopher Hericlitus once mused, “If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail.” Or, for that matter, by GPS.

Lastly, when you’re eyes are constantly on the bouncing blue ball on your smartphone screen in anticipation of the next turn, you’re not even seeing what you originally set out to see, which of course are the communities which are suddenly passing you by. Here is a sample conversation of a Google navigator with eyes firmly glued to a smartphone:

“Ok, turn left in .2 miles…it’s going to fork to the right…you should be passing the Home Depot riiiiiiiiiiiight….now.”

“That was a nice town wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know. What did it look like?”

Though I am as guilty as the rest for relying on Google to get me where I need to go, I hope that we as travelers aren’t sacrificing the wind-in-your-hair freedom of adventure for a calculated algorithm of geographic efficiency. Robert Frost just doesn’t ring as true had he quipped “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– I took the one Google told me to!”

While many may not agree, I am fearful that as technology revolutionizes the travel industry, the greatest casualty will be those roads not taken.

Google maps adds bicycle navigation feature on Android phones

Google Maps with navigation is one of the more powerful selling points of the Android platform. The navigation features within Google Maps are absolutely fantastic – but best of all, they are free.

This afternoon, Google issued a market update that adds bicycle directions to its app. This means you can now get driving, walking, public transit and cycling directions from within Google maps.

To get the new features, just allow Google Maps to download its update and pick your transportation method in the navigation screen. Of course, you may want to invest in a bike mount for your phone. At the moment, bike directions are only available within US based maps, but knowing Google, this may make its way abroad pretty soon.

Other new features include the ability to share your location through email, messaging or Twitter (in addition to Google Latitude) and a new quick-launch navigation icon for your program launcher.