Australian government mapping agency to stop printing maps as demand drops in digital age

In a controversial move, Geosciences Australia has decided to stop printing official topographic paper maps. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM GOOGLE MAPS

SYDNEY - In this age of digital navigation, the popularity of tools such as Google maps and GPS devices have raised questions about whether paper maps are still necessary. Now, Australia, one of the world's largest countries, has just indicated that they are not.

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

From Dec 13, these large-scale maps will no longer be produced and will only be available online. The agency says it is ending the production and sale of 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 hardcopy maps and we can no longer sustain the storage, maintenance and delivery costs of our paper map services," said Dr Martine Woolf, a senior official at the agency.

"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 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 their 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 says he has helped to conduct emergency searches for people such as missing hikers, adding that maps were crucial for such activities.

"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 improved safety and were 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.

"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."

Geosciences Australia says 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 Hardy says such printed maps, particularly when produced on standard home printers, often lacks quality and fails 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."

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

The head of the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney, Professor Bill Pritchard, noted that digital maps were more easily updated but paper maps provided 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.

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