10 May 2016 15:31 IST

Apps teach us World Geography better than any textbook

With advances in the way geography and location-specific services are used, there’s a lot to learn!

My high school geography teacher used to drill it into us that the centre of India is 82½ E longitude. We knew what latitudes and longitudes were — we had memorised the definitions — but I don’t think if I understood their importance until much later, when I was in engineering college.

In college, my friend and I got into an argument about the time difference between India and London as we wanted to watch a cricket match (this was way before the days of the internet, so we couldn’t quickly Google the result nor did we have live updates). We figured it out the hard way that it takes the Earth 24 hours (1,440 minutes) for one rotation. Earth is a sphere, and hence has 360 longitudinal degrees. Dividing one by the other, we know that it takes Earth four minutes to go through 1 degree. So 82½ East longitude, becomes India’s centre. Greenwich, London, is at zero degree longitude, so that makes India 330 minutes ahead, or five-and-a-half hours.

Applying Geography

Fast forward to today. Thousands of Indian cab drivers who never took a geography class in their lives depend on map-based services for their livelihood. That latitudes and longitudes are at the heart of ground-based navigation systems is lost on the millions of us who use GPS apps every day.

Another area where the world has literally come to us is flight tracking. Tracking a flight’s status on an airline’s webpage continues to be a dull experience because all you get is information about the endpoints of flight. For example, the Jet Airways flight status output is an uninteresting 9-column table showing estimated and actual times, the mechanical result of a database query that could only make a programmer happy.

Third-party flight tracking systems offer a refreshing difference from airline flight status pages because they give you so much more. Aviation buffs can lose themselves for hours playing with these sites and learn much about planes, airports, routes and airlines — indeed about life on our fast moving planet.

Consider FlightAware, a site operated by a privately held US company with offices in Houston and New York. The site’s main feature shows a plane on a cool map reflecting the live position of the aircraft, generally delayed by about 5 minutes to meet government safety regulations. (Governments do not want to help terrorists with location information that could be used to bring down planes with a rocket launcher or missile.) But if you can live with that five-minute delay, the site is an absolute visual feast.

Keying in flight number 9W233 into FlightAware will show you that Jet’s Airbus A330-300 is en route from Amsterdam to Delhi, 2,605 miles of the flight already complete and 1,365 miles yet to go. The speed (518 knots) and the altitude (37,000 feet) are displayed. FlightAware’s map doesn’t show you the exact location but from the flight log, you can obtain the plane’s latitude as 39.6425 and longitude as 57.4403. Input these values into Google Maps and you will see that the flight is somewhere over remote Turkmenistan.

The World On Screen

You can play other fun games too. Suppose you want to know how many Emirates planes are currently flying over North America. Simply type in 'Emirates' into the search box and pan the map over to North America. Eight planes can be seen coming into major US and Canadian gateways for the busy afternoon arrival period. And one flight has just left Washington Dulles — clicking on it shows that the plane, an Airbus 380, is flying east of Long Island headed home to Dubai.

Pan the map over to West Asia, and you will see so many blue airplane icons that the map underneath looks like someone spilled ink over a piece of blotting paper. Zoom in enough times and it shows the dominance of Emirates, plying passengers into and out of its Dubai hub, serving so many countries in the EMEA region.

Another activity is to type in popular origin and destination cities, say Tokyo and Los Angeles. FlightAware returns eight airliners in flight showing Japanese carriers (ANA, JAL), US carriers (Delta, United and American Airlines) and a Singapore Airlines plane, each barrelling through the skies at various points above the Pacific.

How about tracking planes of a particular type? Suppose you are a MD-11 Trijet buff. Entering MD11 into FlightAware shows every aircraft of this type, live in flight, on a global map. FedEx and UPS, which operate these massive jets designed for the long-haul cargo business, are the main tail entries in the accompanying text list.

Leap Ahead

Rapid technological advances have made it possible for FlightAware to show so much information about the global aviation industry, all in real time. Beacons on aircraft in flight constantly beam out their coordinates to flight traffic control agencies. This information is instantly (well, after the five-minute delay) made available to FlightAware. The company, which has contracts with over 50 governments, then assembles all of this information, in real time, and presents it on a map for us to see.

Teachers in schools teaching world geography should chuck away their textbooks for a few classes and demonstrate a third party flight tracking tool instead. If this doesn’t open up a young mind to the truth that the world has dramatically shrunk in size since the Wright brothers first flew their craft just 112 years ago, it is hard to imagine what else will do the trick.