My brush with the increasing pervasiveness of smartphone GPS mapping

July 20, 2015

One of the things I do with my time is go bicycling with a local bike club. When you go on group bike rides, one of the things you generally want to have is directions for where the ride is going (if only to reassure yourself if you get separated from the group). When I started with the club back in 2006, these 'cue sheets' for rides were entirely a paper thing and entirely offline; you turned up at the start of the ride and the ride leader handed out a bunch of copies to anyone who wanted or needed one.

(By 2006 I believe that people were mostly creating new cue sheets in word processors and other tools, but some old ones existed only in scanned form that had been passed down through the years.)

Time rolled on and smartphones with GPS appeared. Various early adapters around the club started using smartphone apps to record their rides. People put these ride recordings online and other people started learning from them, spotting interesting new ways to get places and so on. Other people started taking these GPS traces and loading them on their own smartphones (and sometimes GPS devices) as informal guides to the route to supplement the official cue sheets. As time went on, some people started augmenting the normal online ride descriptions for upcoming rides with somewhat informal links to online GPS-based maps of the ride route.

Last year the club started a big push to put copies of the cue sheets online, and alongside the cue sheets it started digitizing many of the routes into GPS route files. For some of the rides, the GPS route files started being the primary authority for the ride's route; the printed cue sheet that the ride leader handed out at the start was generated from them. Finally, this year the club is really pushing people to print their own cue sheets instead of having the ride leader give them out at the start. It's not really hard to see why; even last year fewer and fewer people were asking for copies of the cue sheet at the start of rides and more and more people were saying 'I'm good, I've got the GPS information loaded into my smartphone'.

(This year, on the group rides I've lead I could hardly give out more than a handful of cue sheets. And usually not because people had already printed their own.)

It doesn't take much extrapolation to see where this is going. The club is still officially using cue sheets for now, but it's definitely alongside the GPS route files and more and more cue sheets are automatically generated from the GPS route files. It wouldn't surprise me if by five years from now, having a smartphone with good GPS and a route following app was basically necessary to go on our rides. There's various advantages to going to only GPS route files, and smartphones are clearly becoming increasingly pervasive. Just like the club assumes that you have a bike and a helmet and a few other things, we'll assume you have a reasonably capable smartphone too.

(By then it's unlikely to cost more than, say, your helmet.)

In one way there's nothing particularly surprising about this shift; smartphones with GPS have been taking over from manual maps in many areas. But this is a shift that I've seen happen in front of me and that makes it personally novel. Future shock is made real by being a personal experience.

(It also affects me in that I don't currently have a smartphone, so I'm looking at a future where I probably need to get one in order to really keep up with the club.)

Written on 20 July 2015.
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Last modified: Mon Jul 20 23:04:54 2015
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