13 January 2009

How much can you trust online maps?

The concept of Information Literacy was fairly prominent in Knowledge Management a few years ago but seems to have lost potency recently, which is a shame as it is important to know how reliable information sources are and how they can be checked. My experience with online maps helps to show this.

I use Google Maps a lot and was already aware that there are some quality issues with these, e.g. several roads near me are incorrectly named, but I persevere with it because it comes with the iPod touch and a main competitor is now owned by Microsoft!

Tonight I am going to a Gurteen Knowledge Cafe. These are peripatetic meetings and move around London depending on who is hosting each one.

Tonight's meeting is at the London Development Agency (LDA) and this map taken from their website shows where they are located.

It's quite easy to find but I wanted a local map of the area on my iPod touch because that's what I always do when going to meetings in new places. Better safe than sorry, as they say.

Using the Google Maps application on my iPod touch, I searched for the LDA by their street address, i.e. 197 Blackfriars Road, London.

The "A" pin shows where Google Maps thinks 197 Blackfriars Road is.

Actually, Blackfriars Road is the large yellow road running down the right-hand side of the map so the pin is not very close to it at all.

The only good news about this result is that the positioning is so bad that it is clearly wrong and so you know that it can be ignored.

My next attempt was to find the location on Google Maps using the LDA's postcode, SE1 8AA.

A London postcode covers just a few buildings (sometimes only one) so a postcode search is normally good enough to find a location.

I also preferred to search by postcode because it requires less typing!

This time the pin is even further away from the correct location and is placed just north of Waterloo Station.

The postcode there is something like SE1 8XR; close but nothing like close enough.

Overall this was two very poor results from Google Maps and if I was relying on them then I would not have got to the meeting.

So I put my instinctive hatred of Microsoft aside and tried multimap instead.

Multimap does not have the clean look of Google Maps but this is because it shows local features, such as schools, which can be useful.

The multimap search for 197 Blackfriars Road did point to a location on the right road but one that is significantly south of the correct location.

This would have been good enough for my purpose (unlike either of the Google Maps results) as this would have taken me to the correct street and I could have used the street numbers from there to find the correct building.

I might have complained more if it had been raining though so perhaps I should not have accepted this near miss as good enough after all.

My final attempt was to do a multimap search by postcode.

This was, for all intents and purposes, spot on.

So both multimap responses were fit for purpose but neither of Google Maps were.

I managed to get to the right answer in the end only because I knew to question the first response that I got and how to check this against other information sources and other search methods. Useful skills when we are all wallowing in digital information where it is all to easy to mistake a quick answer for a correct one.

I'll still use Google Maps but now I'll be even more cautious about what it tells me.


  1. Hello,

    I've found that both Google Maps and Nokia Maps have quirks that require a sanity check when viewing the results. Both are good and I find Google's easier to search with (or at least consistently yields better results).

    On my mobile phone E71 I can find something with Google, save it to favorites then open Nokia Maps to get the turn by turn navigation to the saved favorite. It appears that the favorites are shared between applications.

    Good article btw great reading, but why didn't you try Nokia Maps? Would be interesting to see what result you would have found.



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