Ordnance Survey has enjoyed a long and varied history since its military origins in the late 1700s to its current incarnation as a government-owned marketing machine for digital mapping subscriptions sold by an army of social media influencers with a penchant for #GetOutside hashtags and #Gifted Craghoppers jackets. For the last century, however, Ordnance Survey has been more commonly recognised as the organisation behind the British rambler’s favourite navigational aid, OS maps.
The next time you’re lost on a soggy hillside wearing a cagoule that’s barely holding on against the inclement British weather, you can be sure the patch of land you’re standing on has been checked and rechecked by Ordnance Survey for well over 200 years. It’s that kind of attention to detail and compulsion that’s created some of the most beautiful and accurate maps available to the public — indeed, OS maps are as much art as they are functional. My favourite bookshop, Scarthin Books in Cromford, Derbyshire, even uses them as wallpaper.
If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, you’ll no doubt own at least one of them. Perhaps you have a few paper maps lying around (OS Explorer Maps OL1 & OL24 are my favourites), or the waterproof kind that are reassuringly bulky. Or perhaps you’re an ultralight backpacker and you print your bespoke route on rice paper so that it doubles as a nourishing snack — I hear this scores lots of points on lighterpack.com.
In 2014, a report by the Sport and Recreation Alliance revealed that outdoor recreation is the UK’s favourite pastime and while that’s almost certainly been overtaken by arguing with strangers and being snarky on Twitter in the last 5 years, it definitely still ranks somewhere near the top.
But a lot has changed in the last 5 years. Social media has glorified outdoor activities such that people are enticed to our rolling peaks for the ‘gram, whilst Ordnance Survey’s own #GetOutside campaign and Trail Magazine’s collaborative campaign with Mind, Mountains for the Mind, promote the benefits of being outside for our mental health. The result is that more of us are heading for the hills than ever before and they way people want to navigate is slowly changing.
I won’t get into the debate about whether digital mapping has replaced paper maps in this blog — I’ve opened that can of worms before — but wherever you stand on that debate, you can probably acknowledge that a digital facsimile of our cherished paper maps is at least desired and arguably essential. Whilst digital mapping has come a long way, those who are new to outdoor pursuits will quickly realise that Google Maps and Apple Maps are woefully ill-equipped when it comes to mapping the landscape. Of course, there are excellent options for digital navigation like ViewRanger available, but I assume that many people will go straight to The Authority and seek out the OS Maps app.
So, how does it fare? I took it for a walk around the block…
OS Maps for the Digital Age is born
You can almost imagine how the meeting went when Ordnance Survey conceived of the OS Maps suite of tools.
“We have the most accurate maps in the country, a dataset the likes of which even Google would dream of having. We could make a brilliant app. 200-plus years of experience with the British landscape and understanding how people exist within it condensed into something that fits in your pocket.”
“Or we could make something that is precisely no more or less helpful than having a paper map?”
“That does sound a lot easier…”
And so Ordnance Survey set to work in crafting OS Maps.
OS Maps on the desktop
Without any doubt, OS Maps in a desktop browser is exceptional; creating routes couldn’t be simpler. I decided to walk around my local area this weekend because as much as I love the Peaks, they’re quite far away and I know I’ll forget something in this review that I need to go back and check. I mapped a route from a postbox at a shopping centre near my house, not because it has any particular significance but because it seems more sensible than doing it from my front door given that strangers might read this.
In a city, creating a route is a matter of point and click, but within National Parks, OS Maps on the desktop has an incredible ‘snap to path’ feature that means you can map a route that could be miles in length with just two clicks. It’s fast, it’s simple and it’s clearly designed by someone who understands what people want from an online navigation tool.
There were two things I particularly wanted to test on this outing: I wanted to see how OS Maps for iPhone dealt with me leaving the planned route (I do this by accident in the hills a lot), and I wanted to see how well the mobile app handles waypoints.
If you’re going to encourage people who are unfamiliar with the countryside to #GetOutside, you should probably cater for them getting lost and help them get back on track. You should also assume that they’ll have asked for advice on where to walk from a friend and that their friend — being an advocate of all that is good in the countryside — will share a painstakingly-crafted route with useful waypoint information like navigational aids or things of interest along the way.
The waypoint you see on the map above at Wilford Suspension Bridge will also be the place of my deception; instead of following the plotted course, I plan to cross the river and follow the recreational route west to Wilford Bridge where I’ll cross the river again and and rejoin the planned route. This is to mimic getting lost in the outdoors, I’m not just being contrary. Where the path detours from the main road (where the red line crosses the ‘BR’ of ‘BRIDGFORD’), I planned to ‘get lost’ a second time, continuing along the road to see how the app deals with paths that diverge more gradually.
OS Maps for iPhone
Once the route is saved on the desktop, it’s immediately available on the OS Maps app for iPhone. No button to press, no waiting, it’s just there and its seamless. Finding your way around the app is equally excellent; the design of the thing is very well done, everything is exactly where it should be and it’s by far the most intuitive outdoors app I’ve used.
Unfortunately, somewhere between the desktop and the phone it appears that the waypoints have completely vanished. Perhaps they’ll make a surprise appearance later when I’m a little closer.
The information that OS have included about the route before you start navigation is laid out well and, overall, pretty helpful. Along with distance (5.55 km) and an approximate duration (1:29 hours) based on average walking pace — which you can customise if you know yours is different from the norm — there’s also a clear elevation profile.
Information presented during navigation is a little more confusing to the point of being unhelpful. It didn’t matter how far I got into the route, from the moment I set off to the moment I got back to the postbox, the top left corner of the screen said ‘1 hours walked’ while the top right said ‘0% done.’ Again, the elevation profile would be helpful but there’s no visual indicator as to where you are on it. Similarly, the solar data that displays the sun’s position in the sky during the day would be much more useful if it showed you the current time; it seems to be consistently 3 hours behind for me.
Twenty minutes in and with good progress being made in my audiobook, I arrive at Wilford Suspension Bridge. Partially thanks to the incredible writing of Scott Lynch and his irrepressable character, Locke Lamora, and partly because I imminently expect to be showered with interesting detail about the bridge by way of a notification, I feel the suspense building.
There’s no notification. The waypoints really don’t exist.
Had I not already known this route intimately, I would have walked straight past Wilford Suspension Bridge without ever learning that it’s a combined suspension pedestrian footbridge and aqueduct which crosses the River Trent, linking the town of West Bridgford to the Meadows, in the city of Nottingham, England. It also carries a gas main. And the bridge is owned by Severn Trent Water. It’s a crying shame that OS Maps for iPhone doesn’t remotely care about waypoints.
Rather than turning left, I continue over the bridge, which was designed by the architect Arthur Brown of Elliott & Brown (Civil and Structural Engineering Consultancy) and constructed by the Nottingham Corporation Water Department at a cost of £8,871 in 1906 (equivalent to £860,000 in 2018). This stuff is GOLD, Ordnance Survey. Let me see waypoints in my mobile routes.
XTE (Cross Track Error) Alarm
For the uninitiated, XTE Alarms are useful because they alert you to having strayed from your planned route. It’s less of an issue when you’re wandering along a defined river path like I was, but in the countryside it can range from being a minor annoyance to quickly dangerous.
50 metres and there’s no off course alarm. 75 metres… oh good lord, I’m going to be both uninformed and lost, I thought. At 100 metres, I get a notification. I am off course.
I choose ‘Show me’ from the notification and I see my mistake. I’ve gone over the bridge when I should’ve turned left (if you ever walk around here, don’t turn left — it’s mostly fences and dog poo if you go that way).
This is another place where OS could’ve done better. I open the app to see that I am off course, but there’s no breadcrumb to show where I went wrong or how to get back. There’s a reason for this, which we’ll discover to our increasing disappointment later.
While we’re here and lost, let’s spend a little time taking in our surroundings. I don’t mean our surroundings in the sense that I’m going to show you some photos of the river — nobody looks up from their phones these days and so we’ll keep this review honest and I won’t either — I mean let’s zoom out on the map and see where we are.
As we zoom out, 1:25,000 map on the screen, it gradually gets smaller and smaller until the point where the 1:50,000 scale map should take over. Instead, England disappears.
It’s almost as if OS decided to take skeuomorphism to the point of ridiculousness. When you zoom in and out on Google Maps and Apple Maps, more or less detail is shown with no degradation in quality. They’re vector maps and they’re as detailed as is appropriate at every given zoom level. OS Maps don’t work like that — you effectively have two static images, one at 1:25k scale and one at 1:50k scale. Zoom into the 1:50k map too far and it pixellates, just like zooming into a photo too much. Then you swap to the 1:25k map and zoom until it, too, pixellates.
In analogue life, this is how ‘zooming’ into a paper map works: you look at your 1:50k map and everything looks a bit small. You move your face closer. It’s still too small. You move your face closer still. Now your nose is pressing the map, but you yearn for more detail. You find your 1:25k map. Everything looks a bit small. You move your face closer. It’s still too small. You move your face closer still.
Since us ramblers are often luddite souls who shy away from the advancements of technology, Ordnance Survey decided that if they deviated from the real-world experience, we’d all be confused. Consequently, it remains largely unchanged for the digital platform. You start with 1:50k and, rather than moving your face closer, you zoom with your fingers. Once you run out of 1:50k map, you have to tell the app to go and get the other one. It’s a crap experience. Ordnance Survey, you can do better. You already do better on the desktop site where it changes automagically.
I rejoin my planned route and sauntered back towards my starting point at the postbox via the tramlines. Rather than following the side streets, I continued on along the main road as fiendishly planned and waited for the next off-course alarm to tell me I’d gradually deviated from the planned route. It came far too late. As far as I can tell, OS deem 100m to be ‘off course’. I’d prefer it if it was 50m or, better still, user-configurable.
The end of the road
And so we arrive back at where we started, OS Maps still telling me that I’ve walked 1 hour and I’m 0% done (I’ve walked for more than an hour and I’m 100% done). I tap Exit and the app presents me with a screen giving me the opportunity to rate the route I just completed, save it to My Activities, and with the distance I walked. The route is a solid 3/5. Avoiding Dog Poo Alley meant traversing Goose Poo Embankment.
Except, hang on a second. That’s not the distance I walked. That’s the distance I was supposed to haved walked before I took the detour. The actual route I walked was 6.25 km. I know this because I recorded it independently of the OS Maps app. This explains why I didn’t get a breadcrumb when I went wrong earlier — the app isn’t recording where you’ve been, it’s just constantly polling for your position and comparing it to the route line that you’re following. When I tap Done and the route is added to my activity record, I can’t see any details there either. The only information presented to me is that I walked 5.6 km on a given date, which didn’t happen.
Perhaps I’ve become too used to literally every other recreational app out there, but this infuriates me. I walked 6.25 km, show me the actual route I walked. It’s better to show me no information than to present me with data that’s knowingly incorrect.
This app could be brilliant, but it has some ground to cover to get there. I don’t think the aim for Ordnance Survey should be feature parity with other outdoor apps like ViewRanger because they cater to a different group of people. That said, OS Maps is aimed unapologetically at consumers and it therefore needs to provide an experience that’s comparable with that of other consumer apps.
There really should be an Apple Watch companion app to go with the OS Maps app for iPhone. If ViewRanger can display a clear OS Map with a navigation line on an Apple Watch, so can Ordnance Survey. Being able to leave your phone in a backpack and navigate using clear directions on your wrist is functionality I’m not willing to give up. I’d also appreciate the ability to configure how far off course I can go before I’m alerted. 100m is too far.
Those are the ‘nice to haves’. The next two are unforgivable omissions for an app that’s designed for recreational navigation.
Firstly, waypoints need to be available in the mobile app and they need to generate notifications as you approach them with meaningful data. If they were unavailable on both the desktop and mobile app it would bother me less, but to spend time crafting them in one place only to find they’re unsupported in another is a poor experience. Secondly, record the actual route I took! I can’t believe I have to write that of a navigation app, but when I finish the walk, I want to see (and share) where I went and what I did, not where I was meant to go.
Outdoor enthusiasts have been asking OS for these features for years, but improvements to the app and its feature set come at a glacial pace. Despite this, the annual subscription that gets you access to the app’s core maps and features is surely and steadily rising: at the time of writing, it’s £23.99 a year if you choose to auto-renew, a full 20% increase over last year’s price. As far as I can tell, the only change to the app in the last 8 months is a new loading screen. Every time I see a #GetOutside Champion recommending it as the perfect companion to your #GetOutside adventure, it devalues the campaign for me to the point where it seems like a cynical attempt at flogging digital subscriptions.
In short: if you’re planning a trip in the Great Outdoors, hopefully it goes without saying that you’re better off with this than you are with Google Maps or Apple Maps. But you can do better. A lot better.
I should probably bin my #GetOutside Champion application now…