January 27, 2015

Lost in Hawaii: Navigating Without Google Maps

By Lauren C.

For one week, I discarded my phone while vacationing in the uncharted territory of the Big Island, Hawaii, including all online methods of navigation. With a rented car and one real, computer free map in hand, I decided to drive around the Big Island with only this foreign piece of paper in front of me. How hard could it be?

When’s the last time that you used a real map? Not the Google Maps app on your smartphone, but an actual, physical map that you hold in your hands with drawn landscapes, highway markings, and everything else like we used to see in our grandparent’s glove compartment?

Most drivers rely solely on online sources such as Google Maps that help us navigate from point A to B at the convenience of a few search queries. I wanted to discover what initially drove the push for online navigational tools in the first place. In other words, what is it about actual maps that is inconvenient for users, and why do businesses understand how important it is to be found on Google Maps and local search results?

I began by taking Route 19 South to Kona from Waikoloa Village. I understood from the map that it curved around right into town. Awesome, getting into Kona was easy enough! But now I had to find a specific restaurant that I had researched in a travel book. The book provided cross streets that the restaurant was off of, but that didn’t really help me get from Route 19 to the street that I needed to go. I realized that I really needed a map specifically to Kona instead of just the Big Island itself. What I needed was a local map.

I eventually found the restaurant with sheer luck by finally running into the right street. On my way out from lunch, I made sure to buy a local map of Kona and any other local cities on the Island to prevent losing my way in the future. By the end of my week- long experiment, I had so many maps on hand that cartographers around the world would have been jealous. Maps. Maps within Maps. Maps within Maps within Maps. For example, I had a map of the Volcano National Park within the city of Hilo, within the Island of Hawaii.

Ten maps later, I had created an environment within my car that was dangerously close to a fire hazard, and I also came to several epiphanies.

1. Real maps are annoying to hold. Would you rather have ten maps sitting on the floor of your car, or one device in which you can see and hear all of the directions that you need? If you think texting and driving is unsafe, try folding out a huge map with one hand while holding the wheel with the other. I’d rather go with a hands-free digital assistant.

2. Real maps don’t reroute or show traffic. Let me be specific. You can figure out how to reroute by using the physical map, but that takes a hefty amount of cartographic deciphering and your eyes can’t afford to be off the road for that long. But during stressful times in the middle of an unknown territory with a real map, there is no automatic reroute popping up on your phone, showing where to turn quickly without becoming more lost. There’s just this giant, floppy map waving at you in the breezes of the AC, almost mockingly. There also isn’t any way to gauge traffic in certain areas- without the convenient, consistent traffic updates that Google Maps provides.

3. For large cities, a real map will suffice. To find local attractions within a city, Google Maps is vital. I needed to find a specific restaurant within the city of Kona, which was difficult enough. But if you are navigating through a city that you don’t know much about, how are you supposed to look up “Hawaiian Restaurants” or “Gift Shops” and see a list of results to choose from? Google Maps allows users to filter their results accordingly and even sort restaurants by cuisine type or other specific features. A real map won’t do that. You have to know exactly what it is you are looking for, or be content with cruising around this new, unfamiliar area for a long time.

Though I had a romantic desire to come back from my experiment with evidence that technology has made us forget how to use our brains, I begrudgingly bite back my own ideological thoughts. Many users have decided that the benefits of online navigational tools outweigh the hassle of a physical map, and they are right. Local businesses also understand that in order to convenience their users, they must optimize their online presence so they can be found in local search results. In today’s world, businesses are banking on the gal with Google Maps in her car, not the one with ten maps strewn about the floor in a conquest against technology.

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