Learning Geography

I suspect that children are losing track of where stuff is. Not things like socks and backpacks, which they have never been able to locate reliably, but counties, states, nations, rivers, mountains, hemispheres. I already knew that my own kids have no sense of where stuff is in our locality. How could they? They never leave the house other than to strap themselves into a vehicle for transport to some other network-enabled structure. But when one of them made a statement the other day alluding to Portugal’s proximity to China I was a little surprised. I could quickly show her where Portugal is using Google, Bing, National Geographic, but she wouldn’t be interested. She’s a teenager, and doesn’t believe I have enough brain cells left to tie my own shoes.

I often wear slippers, so she may have a point. In any case, people don’t think much about where stuff is anymore. They don’t need to. Our town is where we are, Portugal is at Newark Airport, and everything else is on the web. But supposing they did want to know? What would be the best way to find out? The answer, you might presume, has already been given: just pop open Google Earth or Bing Maps. But unfortunately both of those tools flat-out suck for answering geographic questions. With the appropriate label layers turned on they do fine for things at the scale of countries, so yes you could answer the Portugal question, but they fall to pieces when it comes to geographic features. Quick, open Google Earth and find me the river Vistula.

No, not the Vistula in Houston, Texas, nor the one in Elkhart, Indiana either. The river. Here’s a hint: it’s in Northern Europe. Just zoom in on that general area and search for “Vistula” again. Wow, “Vistula and Wolczanka” is a very popular something in Poland… but still no river. How about the Elbe? The Oder? The Don? Dnieper? Dniester? Rhine? Ok, dammit, just show me the Danube. You must have the freaking Danube. Actually, no, they don’t. Google Earth is an amazing tool, and it’s primarily good at the daunting task of stitching together different imagery of the planet, and of overlaying roads and towns on that imagery. Mountains? Rivers? Estuaries? Peninsulas? Not so much. So let’s try Bing Maps. That must be better, right?

Yes, a little. In the U.S. at least the new Bing beta mapper does a halfway-decent job of labeling some regions, and some bodies of water. At certain elevations it gets the major rivers, but then you scroll out a little and they disappear. In general Bing suffers from place name overload. Some views present you with a vast dense carpet of place names, and no way to filter them out that I can find. But even so it is better than Google Maps, which is specifically and solely about roads and cities. They don’t even bother labeling the Black Sea or the Mediterranean. Forget mountains, and even if you scroll all the way in they won’t tell you what river that blue line represents.

Of course Google and Bing remain the best way to answer all these questions, and perhaps the only way that matters. If you Google “Danube” you’re going to find out which river it is, and where it is. The information is always out there, but just not in the mapping and visualization tools. So consider this a call to web mapping developers everywhere to make their already neat tools more geography-friendly. Give me accessible means for filtering place names (a population slider would be great). Allow me to layer in other features that I want to see. Let me highlight a mountain range, or all the tributaries of a major river. Let me click on a feature and search for its name. Let me visualize ocean currents and prevailing winds, or highlight all the desert environments or forests.

In short, make it easy for me to find out where stuff is on the planet from within your app. And then get to work on my daughter’s backpacks. I’ve bought seventy-five of them and they are all missing.

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