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Crossing the digital divide to Grandma's house

Michael Hayes is planning a trip to New Orleans. The 51-year-old could have Googled his directions, or used Mapquest. Maybe Yahoo.

Instead he drove to AAA's office in downtown St. Petersburg for a more human, low-tech touch: He was picking up a TripTik travel planner.

"It's just more personal," Hayes said. "Your directions come in a nicer format, with maps and detours built in."

Millions of people will be hitting the road for Thanksgiving — 3 percent more than last year, by AAA's Florida estimate — and like Hayes, they face a conundrum.

How do you get to grandma's house in the digital age?

It's like asking five New Yorkers how to get to Brooklyn: Everyone has a different answer and no one is necessarily wrong.

Say you live in St. Petersburg and grandma lives in Palm Beach. Mapquest would send you southeast from Tampa. The trip would be 200 miles and take three hours and 27 minutes.

Google, however, would send you northeast before sending you southeast. That trip would be 232 miles and take three hours and 50 minutes.

Mapquest sends you through Brandon on State Road 60 — no fun if it's rush hour — and then through Bartow and on to Yeehaw Junction to Florida's Turnpike. Google sends you along Interstate 4 near Orlando — always a potential traffic nightmare — through Kissimmee and then to Florida's Turnpike.

How can there be so many ways to get from Point A to Point B?

It's all about the algorithms.

Most of the services use different data for streets and cities. Each service also has its own algorithm, or math programs, to get you from A to B. Add different map data with different algorithms and you get different directions.

Google used data from Tele Atlas for its U.S. maps, but dropped the company last month. The online giant now uses government data and other sources, including user updates.

Mapquest, Yahoo and even AAA's TripTik use data from Navteq, a Chicago company that is an independent subsidiary of Nokia. The company also provides data for many GPS devices. It's one of the main competitors of Tele Atlas.

Even AAA has updated its mapping techniques. While the TripTik Classic remains — complete with highlighted markings to map a route — the new TripTik travel planner uses databases to find construction zones, speed traps and offers other benefits.

From fiscal 2008-09 — October to October — more than 387,000 TripTiks were issued in Florida, Georgia and the western two-thirds of Tennessee. That's down from 2005-06, when almost 520,000 were issued.

AAA has seen an increase in people making their own TripTiks online, from 1.2 million in 2005-06 to 1.6 in 2008-09.

"With the new TripTik, we can route you right to grandma's house," said Joan Donahue, AAA Auto Club South's TripTik project coordinator.

But the physical maps aren't for everybody, especially people used to the speed and convenience of technology. In recent years, AAA has seen a fall in the number of TripTiks handed out. AAA is moving toward having only TripTik travel planners available at branch offices, but TripTik Classic will still be available by mail.

"There's a digital divide between age groups," said Adena Schutzberg, executive editor at Directions Magazine, which covers geospatial technology. "The digital natives wouldn't even think of opening up a map book or atlas for directions."

Just this week, Schutzberg gave a talk at a conference about some recent research. She found one person who said he wasn't going to use Google Maps anymore because he got lost four times.

"The best advice I have for people, give whatever system you're using a chance," Schutzberg said. "If it starts doing you wrong, you better look out."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Andy Boyle can be reached at aboyle@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8087.

Crossing the digital divide to Grandma's house 11/19/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 20, 2009 9:52pm]

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