Missing maps and the fragility of digital information

Traditional methods come through when connected systems fail.

A couple of months ago, I had a remarkable demonstration of the fragility of the “always on” connected mindset. I was on my way to the wonderful Hunewill Ranch for Francisco Dao’s 50 Kings Cattle Drive (a remarkable event that deserves a post all its own.) Hunewill Ranch is on the far side of the Sierra Nevada, near Mono Lake, and I settled in for a long but uneventful drive, guided by Google Maps on my Android phone.

It was a beautiful late spring day towards the end of May, hot even, so the last thing I was thinking about was the possibility that Sierra passes might still be closed. So I was quite surprised to find a sign that the road ahead was closed in 5 miles. I’d have to turn around and retrace my path for over 80 miles.

Now right away, I felt rather betrayed by Google Maps. (Bing Maps was no better.) After all, if the relatively small number of Sierra passes are closed for extended periods of time, how hard would it be to detect that fact and automatically deliver only a working route? Instead, Google provided only a small disclaimer (and one that appears only just before the failed step in the route), that the road ahead “might” be closed. Unless I read the entire list of directions carefully, I wouldn’t see the warning till just about the point where I saw it on a road sign!

(Small advice here to governments: create a web service or even a twitter service that announces when you close and lock the gates to mountain passes, and feed it to mapping services, so they don’t all have to do the work of figuring out whether or not a pass is actually closed. But mapping services like Google or Bing could also figure this out on their own, by scraping websites where closures are announced, or even noticing from GPS traces that no cars pass through at a particular point in the year. Given the small number of mountain passes, this would seem to be a simple and much appreciated investment of time and effort.)

It got worse. Now I had to find another way through the Sierra. Unlike on a PC, where you can drag handles on the map to choose an alternate route, on the phone there really are no affordances for alternate routes. You can’t say, for example, “Bridgeport CA via Highway 50” in the search bar (which would seem like a simple and elegant way to express a route preference.) Instead, I had to pick a destination partway to my destination, and get a route to there.

Because it was very difficult to get the big picture on the phone’s small screen, I thought to pick up a paper map at a gas station. To my dismay, the spinner racks were empty, with only a few maps of other parts of the state available. I immediately regretted throwing away my paper maps in a cleaning binge a few years back – I can easily imagine futures in which they will be worth their weight in gold.

I was back to my phone’s tiny screen. Highway 50, the main route up through the Sierra, which goes to South Lake Tahoe, must surely be open, I thought. So I set my destination as South Lake Tahoe and tried again. It was tough to tell if the route I was taking went through any high passes, but it looked OK, despite the warning, once again, that the road ahead might be closed. Unfortunately, 90 minutes later, I came to another “pass closed” sign, and had to retrace my steps once again).

Finally, I got low enough in the foothills to make it over to Highway 50 and then over the mountains. (I should note that the route on which I eventually succeeded also still bore a warning that the road ahead might be closed.)

That wasn’t the end of my troubles. On the far side of the mountains, my Maps app suddenly quit. I was out of cell range, and couldn’t refresh the directions. I was back to a vague sense of where I was headed, and the kindness of strangers, as in “the old days.” Fortunately, those tried and true methods delivered me to my destination, late by four hours but glad of the thought-provoking experience.

P.S. In one final adventure (what Chesterton once so delightfully defined as “inconvenience properly regarded”), I stopped for gas, only to find the pump empty.”They’ll be by in the next day or two,” the proprietor told me. The same was true at the next two stations. I was running on fumes by the time I got to Bridgeport, a full tank, and a return to cell service.

It was all a good reminder of the fragility of some of our systems. They will get better over time, to be sure. But even those expected improvements won’t ensure that there isn’t a catastrophic loss of service at some inconvenient time. It’s on my to-do list to get a comprehensive set of paper maps, just in case.

What other systems do we depend on that we take for granted? Water, power, food top the list.

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  • Da

    a BGAN terminal and a laptop would have been handy

  • Another system we’re taking increasingly for granted: electronic (non-cash) payments. I work in the field – and worry about when things go wrong.

  • Nice story that, I think, more than anything highlights a lack of flexibility (essential for any trip) on your part rather than the fickleness of technology. You must be one stubborn guy. How hard would it have been to stop at a garage and buy a real map, talk to some real people who live and breath the mountain seasons. Or consider this, maybe your it was your host (a person) ho was remiss by failing to tell guests west of the Sierra Nevadas that these passes were closed. Beautiful country, though. It could have been a lot worse.

  • @martin kelly – LOL. I was extremely flexible. Kept going till I found my way through, and enjoyed it all the way.

    My whole point was that there WERE no garages that had real maps. I talked to various locals, and there advice was “there ain’t no way to get there from here; you have to drive all the way back down to Sacramento.)

    There was actually a better way, and I found it, but not through those means.

    The host did send out an ambiguous message; if it had been clearer, it would have helped. But the best that everyone was able to say was that the roads “may be closed,” when in fact, it’ is quite knowable which ones actually WERE closed.

  • Mike in Tucson

    I’m old-fashioned in my approach — I always travel with printed or hand-written copies of my critical info, and before a trip I check the web or make phone calls to find out about travel advisories. Granted, hard copies of maps, phone numbers, confirmation numbers, etc. won’t prevent the hassles of, say, an unexpected road closure, but in trip-disrupting scenarios I’ve always found it far easier to glean info from a hard copy, especially if I’m relying on my travel companion to provide feedback while looking over maps/itineraries. I’m not being smug here, I’m just the type of person who likes knowing that access to some of my critical data isn’t reliant upon a device or the device’s net connection. Perhaps when some of the ideas that Tim mentioned (seemless travel advisory notification, alternative route mapping) are implemented, and cellular connectivity in remote areas is more widespread, perhaps then I’ll begin to give up my old ways.

  • gregor

    The US DOT site does provide information about roads that are closed for the winter (they are all open just now so I can’t point to an example, but here’s the URL: http://www.dot.ca.gov/cgi-bin/roads.cgi)

    But it’s the most USELESS format for anyone not already totally familiar with the particular highway to read. It references particular passes or even just grocery stores (eg. ‘Ham’s Station’ on Hwy 88.)

    And of course a computer would have a hard time parsing it too. Give us a nice REST format with some freakin’ coordinates!

  • I have the same problem in the UK where despite the small country, the cellphone reception in rural areas is very unreliable. Asking locals for directions doesn’t always help either. I once asked a local in rural Devon directions to a small village on the extol of Dartmoor.

    He responded, “I wouldn’t start from here.”

  • P J Evans

    gregor, that’s not the US DOT site; that’s Caltrans.

    FWIW, most of us don’t need paper maps for those passes: all the paper maps say ‘Closed October-May’. This year they were late because there was more snow than usual.

    But if you really want something on paper, start with CSAA or ACSC; they have decent maps. Next best places to look, before you start, are bookstores and office-supply stores. Also, you can look in sporting-goods stores.

  • The kind of problem you found with mountain pass information is common on the internet. A lot of the information we have now is like the old printed phone book: A directory updated every once in a long while.

    It should be easy to make that information up to date and useful but most people are stuck in the old directory mindset. Maps should have frequent updates for road closures due to weather, accidents, or traffic. Restaurant searches should allow a time term to return the ones that are open right now or next Sunday.

    A challenge web developers should be addressing.

  • gary

    In this more northern part of the continent, the provincial highways department have the information posted on their websites and the local radio stations are always on the ball with their road condtions reports. Even then things can change in the course of an hour or two.

    And depending on your service provider, you can be out of range for most of your trip through some of the mountain areas.

  • I know Washington State DOT tweets the status of mountain passes during the winter months. It shouldn’t be that hard.

  • May

    I experienced a similar incident while driving in the northern sierras at night trying to find a campsite where my friends were staying. I was relying on Google Maps until suddenly I had no cell reception. It was midnight and pitch black outside. Luckily I still had a set of AAA maps in my car to guide me or I would have had to camp on the side of the road by myself.

    In the winter, I check this twitter feed for road closures and chain controls on hwy 80 http://twitter.com/#!/i80chains (although I would not think to check it in May so yes, something integrated with Google Maps would be ideal!

  • Interesting … I you come from a less developed country like India, you are not going to get into such trouble.

    You always expect that such services may fail and you would have made contingency plans!

  • Jan Drake


    There’s potentially an interesting story to explore in the relationships between the fragility you describe, the idea of technocracy, and the changes in learning/education as it results to search or technology in general which probably results in different/divergent cultural expectations.


    – Assumptions of availability
    – Potential insecurity/arrogance when confronted with lack of availability (not tied to your post)
    – Single point of dependency and failure
    – Reduced up-front planning
    – Lack of contingency planning
    – Emotional responses to the above

    Could be ted.com worthy to tie it all together. Study worthy certainly.

    Likely been done, of course… can’t read the whole internet. :)


  • seems more a question of fragmentation than fragility.

    developer’s have a tendency to pull data from places, pull data out of events. when context is hinged to events at places. imagine if your invite to your ranch came with dynamic links to any and all access info needed. imagine a place pushes any change in access relative to events planned.

    pretty simple design – would also mean digital systems need not be always on – welcome to the push world, a la JSB’s latest concepts on shifts in economy.

  • I think a lot about the many conveniences that we have that could collapse on us at any time. Usually those collapses are temporary. (Remember what it was like right after Loma Prieta in ’89?) Sometimes they are longer, or much more dramatic. (Think post-Katrina.)

    I like to learn little things that help in “survival” situations, like what wild plants in my area are edible or poisonous, not because it’s going to save my life in a real emergency, but because it’s one tool in a much more complete toolbox of creative thinking in tight spots. If you get accustomed to thinking about what to do without technology and the convenience of our societal systems, then you can approach problems that are well within the systems better, too.

    As for the travel situation, it’s a good idea for all long trips, to spend a bit of time before you get on the road to KNOW your path before you go. It’s not enough to let GPS lead you. You should check the list of steps to make sure that there are no warnings, check websites for traffic and closure where that might be important, and if possible, get a birds-eye-view of your journey before you head out the door. (Yay for satellite images!) Also, travel is always best when you can bring along a navigator: someone to read maps, directions, and travel trivia, and who is adept at opening snacks and/or drinks and passing them to you while you keep your eye on the road. I drag my teenager around on my travels for that purpose. :)

  • I would be careful in assuming things will get better. Gas stations run dry? Fossil fuel is a finite resource. Navigation robustness? The GPS system is easily and frequently jammed.

    Thanks for the reminder of the value of paper maps. Maybe keep a road atlas with a few hundred bucks cash with the spare tire.

    Ah yes, spare tires, another traditional fail-over resource we have been abandoning. :)


  • @jan drake – really great suggestion for a bit of thinking and writing about how all this intersects with education, expectations, and people who grow up not knowing how to do without these kinds of systems. I had a really good sense of direction and “map sense” to fall back on, and so I was able to keep finding my way. But someone who’s grown up with GPS? They could have been totally lost.

    @Daniel Howard = precisely. I just assumed you could get paper maps, and was shocked not to find any in the gas station. I’m going to stock up and keep them just in case.

    @Elisheva Sterling – You’re right. Reviewing the whole route in advance is really good practice. Part of the problem was that the directions sent out by the organizer were for the route I took. He sent out a last minute message saying “Don’t take the back roads; the passes may be closed” but he never specified which were the back roads!

  • CVBruce

    First, I agree with your observations. It would seem a natural function to obtain this information, and include it in the maps & directions.

    I know that CalTrans has this information on there website, plus closures for other reasons, and construction on state maintained roads.

    But the other issue that you don’t touch on is the assumption that the cloud is always available everywhere. As you point out on HWY US395 the coverage is not so great. Yet new apps arrive everyday that require the cloud to work.

  • Hey Tim,

    You are lucky, it was a very similar situation that lead to the eventual death of CNET.com editor James Kim in my home state of Oregon. Someone at the BLM forgot to go a close a gate to a logging road that was impassable in snow. The Kims made a wrong turn that ended in tragedy.

    One thing your situation brings up is the difference in accountability between government and private services. If you take the time to read the fine print in Google’s terms of service you find a section that states that their mapping service is for entertainment purposes only (I didn’t believe it myself until I read it).

    In Oregon you can find an online mapping service that the state uses to inform travelers of advisories and closures in the cascades. The functionality is nowhere near that of Google maps, however, the government is directly accountable for the content of the site.

    What would be great is a way for the two sources to be mashed up in such a way that you could drill down and see if there is a level of accountability behind the data.

    Some day.

    Justin Houk

  • An observation on your final “they will get better over time” comment – that’s certainly true, but paradoxically it will probably exacerbate the suddenly-helpless phenomenon you’re describing.

    For illustration – we hardly ever had this kind of problem 10 years ago, when we had to be more “self-reliant” about these kinds of things, and have more contingency planning. And certainly our technology has “gotten better” over that 10 years.

    However, it’s difficult to argue that the whole navigation experience hasn’t improved several orders of magnitude over the last 10 years. And the paper-map experience certainly has catastrophic failure modes too – like driving off the edge of your map, or accidentally bringing the Minnesota map when you needed Montana, only to discover it at the west end of North Dakota. It would actually be interesting to compare the number of non-collision road fatalities over this time period to see what’s happened with the *really* catastrophic stuff, like getting stranded in a snowstorm.

  • It is indeed so easy to take these new and very useful technologies for granted, especially if our experience is mostly in urban areas with constant connectivity available. I also agree that food and power are analogues, as most of us don’t really know how or where these things are produced. Grocery stores usually have two or three days’ worth of food in stock. If the distribution process broke down somehow, where would that leave the majority of people? That, I think, is an intriguing question that too few people consider.

  • I agree with Martin Kelly’s comment, but I have no specific indictment of Tim’s behaviour.

    I’ve driven in the Sierra’s for a large part of my life, though I now live on the California coast.

    I reflexively know that many of the passes are closed even in early summer because of the snows (and we all know that the snows this year were well above average).

    So I would have automatically looked with suspicion on any online map that advised a route through the mountains without calling the highway authorities to confirm the state of the roadways.

    Tim’s actions here were not really different from those of James Kim back in 2006, who died in the Oregon wilderness 15 miles from safety after stranding his family in the woods, having run out of gas following a poor set of driving directions that advised him to drive on roads that were unfit to drive in the winter.

    Though we city dwellers don’t like to think of it, since we’ve constrained our lives so that we can live in a highly-connected world, the disconnect between our highly-connected world and a fully-disconnected one can be a small matter of a few dozen miles.

  • I was on the other side of the equation last summer: living in Sagehen Meadow in Mono County, just two miles off of a major California highway, and on a major (dirt) forest road. The visitors who followed our written instruction for finding the house had no problem. The people following their GPS units got lost. Invariably they got lost, and we had to drive out to the highway to get a cell signal and talk them in. I always carry a AAA map (free to members) and the DeLorme atlases of the southwest. Although, the DeLorme atlases can be pretty bad at times. Also check out the various articles that were published earlier this year under the title of “Death by GPS.”

  • Simon S.

    Sorry for the “I could have told you so” attitude, but I never threw my road maps away, I always collect all the relevant ones before I go on a trip, and I only use online mapping services for street maps of places I can’t otherwise get street maps of. And then what I do is print them out before the trip and take the printouts with me.

    Follow these cautionary tips, and all your problems except the closed mountain passes (and you can get that information from the state DOT) are over.

  • ChrisFS

    Accept that digital maps aren’t perfect and buy a map from AAA for long trips in unfamiliar places. $5 for a permanent map that stays neatly folded in your car is worth the time and aggravation. Think of it as a backup.
    I also recommend reading an article titled “Death By GPS”, It will enlighten you about the limits of GPS.

  • In Socrate’s Phaedrus, there’s a story about King Thamus debating the pros and cons of writing *as a technology* – he feels people will remember less and therefore think less, and the downsides of writing outweigh the benefits.

    Its inescapable that each layer of technology we use demands a quiet trade of convenience for dependence, and we’re unlikely to notice until its too late to recover. Printed maps work great too until you realize the map is simply wrong (it happens), or doesn’t provide enough detail to be of use. All technologies have limits, you just don’t notice them unless you’re poking at the boundaries of things.

    The sensible survivalists talk about contingency – anything you depend on should be within your power to obtain through multiple means. And it seems that’s good advice for anyone traveling. Most people who get into trouble when venturing forth are underprepared – what’s fascinating is how the convenience of technology has made us comfortable doing many things without any preparation at all.

  • Roy G. Ovrebo

    But mapping services like Google or Bing could also figure this out on their own, by scraping websites where closures are announced, or even noticing from GPS traces that no cars pass through at a particular point in the year. Given the small number of mountain passes, this would seem to be a simple and much appreciated investment of time and effort.

    You’re either being sarcastic or ridiculously parochial. The number of potentially closed mountain passes – and ferry services – a world-wide mapping service like Google or Bing would have to correct for is huge, even if you limit it to roads that are closed for months at a time.

  • @Roy G. Ovrebo – “The number of potentially closed mountain passes – and ferry services – a world-wide mapping service like Google or Bing would have to correct for is huge, even if you limit it to roads that are closed for months at a time.”

    Google tracks traffic and mass transit systems all over the world in real time. Why couldn’t they track something mostly static that only changes every 3-6 months like mountain pass closures? I think that it’s more likely that the information is not offered in the right format from governments.

  • For all of the reasons that you and others have stated, network-reliant devices like cell phones are not optimal nav systems. If you had a Garmin GPS or a TomTom device, you likely would easily found a detour. Because of their commercial and crowdsourced data subscription options, my TomTom frequently is able to tell me about road conditions that I’d never find out about from a government source.

    I spoke about this problem at one of the early Where 2.0 conferences. Phone-based nav systems will soon be able to act just like their GPS device brethren and cache detailed map data for large areas. Until that happens, it should come as no surprise to you that living at the bleeding edge does involve some pain every once in a while.

  • I have never had a problem with Google maps , and I travel a lot , this is why I am extremely surprised that you did…

  • I use Google maps quite often cause I travel a lot and I haven’t encountered any problems yet.But some friends of mine have had similar difficulties.

  • I think Waze (the mobile phone navigation / crowdsourced traffic data app) might have been more useful, here. I guess you didn’t try it?

  • Raju Varghese

    Here is a pertinent quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “The machine which at first blush seems a means of isolating man from the great problems of nature, actually plunges him more deeply into them. As for the peasant so for the pilot, dawn and twilight become events of consequence. His essential problems are set him by the mountain, the sea, the wind“. I got that from this article, which, incidentally, also deals with the possible difficulties of navigation in the digital age: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/gps-and-the-end-of-the-road

  • What a nightmare, Tim. As great as mobile mapping software is, it’s still a good idea to keep an up to date Rand McNally road atlas under the seat. Just sayin’. :)

  • Google maps are the only one that i like to use.

  • ” I immediately regretted throwing away my paper maps”
    Well, I think then it all boils down to you not having a disaster recovery solution. :-)

  • Dave

    Google maps… update frequency.
    Iowa Speedway right next to the Newton, IA municipal airport was built over 5 years ago but it still doesn’t show on Goggle maps! Yahoo maps shows it….

    Which leads me to believe that new roads in certain areas might not be shown at all!

    I know this is a constant upgrade headache for Google… but 5 years is a bit much, especially for a multi-million dollar facility like Iowa Speedway.

  • Anyway I think Google Maps is amazing… if you see it by “dark” side, well, may you are right

  • Agree with “Andres Florian”, Google Maps is superb, I not an ‘expert’ but I think and I have seen every Google “product” is always perfect hehe kidding, just very good