At times, it can seem like the days move quickly and the years slowly. When we look at technology, the cumulative effect of change can seem astounding, even in the context of decades of development.

The first artificial satellite to orbit the earth was launched in 1957. In over 60 years, this process has gone from rare and notable to commonplace. Commercial space launches of microsatellites barely score a headline.

Some of us remember the grainy photos from surveillance satellites and the in-and-out news feed from some remote part of the world with the label “Live via satellite.” Today, not only do satellites help provide centimeter-level locations for property corners, the images and associated mapping are vital to the safety and security of people, animals, crops, and infrastructure around the globe.

Precise topographical mapping provided by a combination of satellite and terrestrial resources becomes a front-line defense in the battles against wildfires and other natural and man-made disasters. They help in the prediction of the progress of a given disaster, which in turn aids in the response. And, while events like wildfires can exceed the capability to contain and control them, the value of maps and models in preserving life can’t be overstated.

An alarming story appeared in Scottish Life’s Summer 2018 magazine. Titled “The Nation’s Mapkeeper,” the article discussed the treasure trove of historic maps. What was alarming was when the collection’s curator described how studies showed young people who were directed to an event using cell-phone based satellite navigation on one night and then directed to a different event at a nearby location the next night had no idea of the proximity of the two events. Though they were just blocks from the location they had visited the night before, the young people had no sense of the geography or their proximity to the previous night’s venue.

Our reliance and confidence in following the turn-by-turn directions of satellite navigation appears to be extinguishing our sense of location. On the one hand, this can be valuable when evacuating in the face of an advancing wildfire. If authorities can broadcast a safe evacuation route and people follow those directions, it can avoid having people take a known path which might lead them into danger or, worse, get them stranded in the middle of the fire because they followed a road that was blocked by the fire.

I recall sitting in a hotel room listening to reports on the imminent threat of tornados progressing across “Crawford County.” Without any sense of local geography, I didn’t know if my hotel was even in Crawford County. If I had to take action, I could just as easily have rushed into danger as headed away from it. A phone app that could tell me where I was wouldn’t help if it didn’t also tell me where the danger was.

While surveyors are sweating the centimeters, there is also an opportunity to take the message that maps are important tools and put some excitement back into learning how to use a map to find your way. The time to learn map skills is not when you are fleeing a wildfire.


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