In response to the news that Australia has to correct its GPS coordinates to account for continental drift, the Ordnance Survey blog examines whether Great Britain will have to do the same. “The situation for us (and most of Europe) is not so bad. Europe’s GPS compatible datum, ETRS89, is fixed to the European tectonic plate at the time 1 January 1989 and moves by around 2.5 cm each year. In theory, GPS-derived coordinates are now about 70 cm away from where they should be in the ETRS89 system.”
Jon Wright reviews Greg Milner’s Pinpoint, the U.K. edition of which is now available, in the August 2016 issue of Geographical magazine. “Some of the claims about how GPS ‘may fundamentally change us as human beings’ seem inflated, but the book is a useful starting point for discussion.” Amazon, iBooks.
Previously: Pinpoint Now Out.
Decades of continental drift mean that GPS coordinates in Australia are off by approximately 1.5 metres (5 feet), which has implications for self-driving cars and other applications that require very precise positioning. See coverage from Atlas Obscura, BBC News, Popular Mechanics and the Washington Post.
Basically, the discrepancy comes from the fact that GPS is based on the Earth’s core rather than any point on the surface, whereas local coordinates are based on a geodetic datum—in Australia’s case, GDA94 (North America uses NAD83)—that is based on a fixed point on the surface. But with plate tectonics, points are not fixed: Australia moves northward at seven centimetres a year.
On 1 January 2017 Australia will shift its coordinates north by 1.8 metres, overshooting things a bit so that the continent and GPS will be in sync by 2020, with plans to keep the datum continually updated after that.
William Rankin’s After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century is out this month from the University of Chicago Press (Amazon, iBooks). The book’s website explains in depth what it’s about, and makes all the book’s illustrations and data available for free download. [GIS Lounge]
This book can be read at two scales. Narrowly, it is a history of the mapping sciences in the twentieth century that situates technologies like GPS within a longer trajectory of spatial knowledge. But more expansively, by connecting geographic knowledge to territorial politics and new ways of navigating the world, it is also a political and cultural history of geographic space itself.
See also: Map Books of 2016.
Greg Milner’s Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture and Our Minds is out this month from W. W. Norton. (The British edition, published by Granta, comes out in July.) Pinpoint explores the social impact of GPS, which sounds very interesting. I’ll have to lay hands on a copy. Reviews: Will Self in the Guardian, Kirkus Reviews and Maclean’s. Amazon, iBooks.
GPS has become as invisibly ubiquitous as oxygen, and just as vital to many of society’s functions. What happens when it breaks? The Christian Science Monitor reports on GPS’s vulnerabilities, real (jamming) and potential (attack on the satellites), and what backups might exist if and when it goes down. [Alex Chaucer]
Writing in Nature, Roger McKinlay notes the complexity, infrastructure requirements (i.e., cost) and limitations of modern navigation technology and argues that people “should make better use of our innate capabilities. Machines know where they are, not the best way to get to a destination; it might be more reliable to employ a human driver than to program an autonomous car to avert crashes. If we do not cherish them, our natural navigation abilities will deteriorate as we rely ever more on smart devices.” [via]
Earlier this month in the New York Times, Greg Milner looked at something that was a frequent subject during The Map Room’s first life: people getting themselves lost by blindly following their GPS units (or satnavs, as the British call them).
Could society’s embrace of GPS be eroding our cognitive maps? For Julia Frankenstein, a psychologist at the University of Freiburg’s Center for Cognitive Science, the danger of GPS is that “we are not forced to remember or process the information—as it is permanently ‘at hand,’ we need not think or decide for ourselves.” She has written that we “see the way from A to Z, but we don’t see the landmarks along the way.” In this sense, “developing a cognitive map from this reduced information is a bit like trying to get an entire musical piece from a few notes.” GPS abets a strip-map level of orientation with the world.
Milner is the author of the forthcoming book Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds (W. W. Norton, May 2016): pre-order at Amazon or iBooks.
For another look at how GPS may be affecting our brains’ ability to navigate, see “Global Impositioning Systems,” a long read by Alex Hutchinson in the November 2009 issue of The Walrus, which I told you about in 2011.
Local Maine media is reacting to the news that Garmin is buying DeLorme, which is based in Yarmouth. Here’s coverage from the Portland Press Herald, which notes that the Maine headquarters will be maintained, but the map store will close. (Eartha will continue to be open to the public.) There is no news about the future of DeLorme’s Maine Atlas and Gazetteer, the paper-based product that started DeLorme off in 1976, which is worrying the Bangor Daily News’s outdoors editor John Holyoke.
Garmin has announced that it is buying Maine-based GPS manufacturer DeLorme. “Garmin will retain most of the associates of DeLorme and will continue operations at its existing location in Yarmouth, Maine following the completion of the acquisition. The Yarmouth facility will operate primarily as a research and development facility and will continue to develop two-way satellite communication devices and technologies. Financial terms of the purchase agreement and acquisition will not be released.” (Presumably that means that Eartha won’t be moved to Olathe.)
Scientific American on how the U.S. military used GPS during the first Gulf War in 1991—the first war in which GPS played a major role. “GPS would change warfare and soon became an indispensible asset for adventurers, athletes and commuters as well. The navigation system has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that the Pentagon has come full circle and is investing tens of millions of dollars to help the military overcome its heavy dependence on the technology.”