Aussie govt mapping agency to stop printing paper maps

In this age of digital navigation, the popularity of tools such as Google maps and GPS devices has raised questions over the need for paper maps. Now, Australia has indicated that they are no longer necessary.

In a controversial move, the nation's geographic agency, Geoscience Australia, has decided to stop printing official topographic paper maps.

From Dec 13, these large-scale maps will only be available online. The agency says it is ending the production and sale of paper maps due to falling demand. It says the maps are used for high-level planning, rather than on-the-ground activities such as hiking and navigation.

"Over a number of years, we've seen a rapid decline in demand for hard copy maps and we can no longer sustain the storage, maintenance and delivery costs of our paper map services," said Dr Martine Woolf, a senior agency official.

"We believe the future of topographic maps is in providing accurate and freely available information for anyone, anywhere, to create their own maps."

She added: "We understand people really value hard copy maps - we also love maps here at Geoscience Australia, and we're committed to providing the best information available."

But the move has caused anger, particularly among bushwalkers, outdoor adventurers and those in emergency services who insist they still use paper maps, particularly in areas that have no communications coverage, or as a backup in case people lose their phones or the phone battery runs out.

A regular bushwalker, Mr David Hardie, who lives in a rural area south-west of Sydney, believes it is "dangerous" to enter bushland without a paper map. He said he has helped to conduct emergency searches for people such as missing hikers, adding that maps are crucial in such situations.

 

"I would not want to go into wild bush that I was not familiar with without a paper map," he told The Straits Times. "We always navigate by maps when we are looking for people in the wild. You don't always get a good signal, especially at the bottom of gullies. You don't always know exactly where you are."

Australia is the world's sixth-largest country by land mass, with huge stretches of dense bushland and isolated areas where there is often no phone coverage and no immediate place to recharge phones or GPS devices.

A tour guide who conducts trips into the Australian wilderness, Ms Claire Drabsch, said paper maps help improve safety and are a useful educational tool. "The maps are really important for us to have in the field," Ms Drabsch, from Trek Tours Australia, told ABC News.

PRINT'S THE THING

I would not want to go into wild bush that I was not familiar with without a paper map. We always navigate by maps when we are looking for people in the wild. You don't always get a good signal, especially at the bottom of gullies. You don't always know exactly where you are.

MR DAVID HARDIE, a bushwalker who has helped in emergency searches for people such as missing hikers.

"You need to be able to see not just what's happening in the next few hundred metres, but what's happening in the whole area around you. You don't want to end up at the top of a cliff and then have to walk an extra 3km around."

Geoscience Australia said its maps will be available for free online and people can print paper copies. "There are a lot of advantages to digital maps, including better access to up-to-date and reliant topographic information," said Dr Woolf. "We believe the future of topographic maps is in providing accurate and freely available information for anyone, anywhere to create their own maps."

But Mr Hardie said such printed maps, particularly when produced on standard home printers, often lack quality and fail to properly present small features such as creeks or the contour lines that indicate the steepness of climbs.

"The problem with PDF maps is that if you are not a professional printer it is very difficult to get every layer of the map done properly," he said. "It is extremely difficult to navigate in rough terrain without being able to identify creeks and contour lines."

Spatial Services, the New South Wales agency which provides mapping services, is reportedly cutting its range of maps, due to the popularity of digital tools. The state of Victoria is still producing maps.

 

The head of the School of Geosciences at University of Sydney, Professor Bill Pritchard, noted that while digital maps are more easily updated, paper maps provide a lasting geographic snapshot of a place.

"The thing about a map is that it can be seen as a story about a place - how it was represented, and by whom, at what point in time - not just a document where spatially-referenced information is held," he was quoted as saying in The Sun-Herald.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2019, with the headline 'Aussie govt mapping agency to stop printing paper maps'. Print Edition | Subscribe