A year or so ago, passing through Sevierville on the way home from a family trip to Pigeon Forge, I saw a flashing message sign, the type which usually warns you of lane closures, construction, temporary reduced speed limits or other traffic hazards.
This one had a different message.
"YOUR GPS IS WRONG," it flashed. "GO STRAIGHT TO REACH I-40."
Apparently, a new bypass around Sevierville was not yet reflected on most mapping software, and so either TDOT or the Sevierville government wanted to make sure people used it, even though their GPS units were telling them to go a different way.
I was amused at "YOUR GPS IS WRONG," but the message served as a reminder that Global Positioning System units (along with GPS-based mapping apps on mobile phones) have become quite popular and commonplace. Even people who don't own a GPS unit often turn to Google Maps or MapQuest in advance to print out directions when they're going somewhere for the first time. I do so quite frequently.
But, as the flashing sign pointed out, the online maps, or the maps you download from your GPS provider, may not always be accurate or up-to-date.
A week or two ago, our webmasters added some new content to the Times-Gazette web site from Zap2It, including a widget which lists current movie releases and nearby theaters at which you can view them. The theaters are supposed to be listed by proximity, but when the widget first went live I noticed that the multiplex in Tullahoma was listed as being closer than our local movie theater, the Capri. I did some checking and discovered that Zap2It, for some inexplicable reason, had the Capri Theatre listed as being in Petersburg. The street address was exactly right, but the city was wrong.
Our webmasters were able to contact Zap2It and get them to correct the address, but there's not always an obvious way, or any way at all, for the casual user to try to get mistakes like this corrected.
Don't get me wrong -- online maps are mostly accurate and extremely useful. But they're not infallible. When I used Google Maps to prepare the storm shelter and election precinct maps on the Times-Gazette web site, there were times when I would enter a street address and Google would put its marker in a place I knew wasn't right. I would switch from map view to satellite view, and -- sure enough -- I could see the actual church building or community center a half-mile away from where Google wanted it to be. I would have to place the markers by dragging and dropping them instead of by street address.
I'm now in rehearsals for a play at the Fly Arts Center, and I wanted to post a Facebook link to the Fly's web site for some of my out-of-town friends who might not be familiar with the facility. I snooped around the site a little bit, and on the "About Us" page there's an embedded MapQuest map. But the map doesn't seem to have anything to do with the actual location of the Fly; the only feature on it is a big red star located out on the southwestern fringe of town, on Lewisburg Highway. I'm not sure whether that's the fault of MapQuest or the person who set up the widget on the web page.
I suppose the takeaway from all this is that online maps or in-car GPS units, while useful tools, have to be combined with a bit of common sense and careful observation. And some mapping providers need to offer better ways for the public to be able to report errors. As more and more people get GPS units and/or smartphones, the need to keep the maps accurate will continue to grow.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.