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COLUMN: MU campus map makes me sad

Friday, January 22, 2010 | 1:23 p.m. CST; updated 5:30 p.m. CST, Monday, February 1, 2010

MU's online campus map has a lot in common with the road to hell: Not only is it paved with good intentions, but it also won't be leading you anywhere you actually want to go.

That map is the first impression thousands of applicants and incoming students have of the MU campus. Right now, the MU administration provides a map so useless that they'd make a better impression on those kids if they shoved them into a bathtub full of lukewarm, uncooked sausage.

Why do we care about the impression a map makes? Because if MU is the locomotive that powers Columbia's economy, then the annual stream of thousands of raw freshmen is the fuel stoking that engine. Like hyenas following the wildebeest, the entire town depends on this annual migration. Anything that obstructs that flow threatens the city's livelihood.

At some point in the process of applying, arranging campus visits or finding their first classes, students are bound to visit Missouri.edu and click "map." And when they do, they'll wish they had opted for the clammy sausage instead. 

First, users are presented with a Columbia map drawn in a distinct neo-Cubist style. By this, I mean that it's packed with random, blockish shapes that bear little resemblance to reality. "MU Flagship Campus" is the biggest shape and also the only one the map's intended audience of university newcomers could possibly care about. Which makes you wonder why they didn't dispense with this Cubist interlude and take users straight to the flagship campus map. I'm guessing they just couldn't resist flaunting such stimulating locales as "Rock Quarry Area," "Golf Course" and "Lemone Industrial Area." 

Even the zoomed-in "MU Flagship Campus" screen doesn't show a single landmark. Instead, it opts for arbitrarily drawn neighborhoods with made-up names like "Turner Avenue" and "Lowry Mall." 

The good news is that once you click on a neighborhood, you see a block-level view with clearly labeled buildings. The bad news is there are no hints as to what each area holds. That means on his first day in Columbia, some poor kid from Rolla is going to be clicking at random and praying in vain that he stumbles across his horticulture class.

Furthermore, at this highest zoom level, each disembodied block is shown individually. There's no way to get your bearings. All you see are a few buildings and, if you're lucky, a cross street. In many cases, you'd see more from any given campus sidewalk than you would on the corresponding area of the map.

You know the goofiest part of this mess? There was a time when someone, somewhere, had the original map with all these blocks strung together in one cohesive whole. And he or she looked at that lovely map and said to themselves: "You know what would really take this thing to the next level? Busting it into fragments so tiny they're impossible to use on their own, then giving each one its own page!" It would be like me taking my AAA map of the Central States and Provinces, shredding it into 37 pieces and scattering them throughout my truck.

Anyway, here's a good rule of thumb: If you don't already know the precise location of whatever you're looking for, you won't be finding it on the MU campus map. Realistically, the only way to get any use from MU's map is to spend a few hours memorizing a real map beforehand. 

On the plus side, the entire online map view is only a few inches wide. That'll come in handy when the government issues a series of stamps commemorating history's worst maps; they won't have to re-size the image or anything. It'll fit right on that 14-cent stamp.

Buried below that claustrophobic image, which itself takes a bare minimum of three clicks to reach, is the map's one redeeming feature. When you click on a building, you see a photo of the structure, a list of the departments housed within and links to nearby visitor parking. It could have been pretty nifty had anyone ever been so brave as to click through the thick, fermenting layers of map guano separating it from the homepage.

For the record, the "search" and "driving directions" options can be marginally helpful as well. They're also almost entirely mapless which, considering the cartographic catastrophe described above, is probably a selling point. 

The upshot of all of this is that, instead of figuring out where they'd like to go on campus, prospective and new students will learn to associate the MU campus with pain, frustration and room-temperature sausage. 

It doesn't have to be that way.

The road to relevant campus navigation can be as simple as embedding a Google Map. Google already has a great view of MU's campus, complete with landmarks, building names and building outlines. It would cost the university zero dollars and about 28 seconds of effort to embed it in its map page.

And if that's too much, they're already hiding perfectly good options under the links "Printable Parking Map," which includes a traditional numbered map and "Campus Accessibility Map," which allows you to zoom and drag your way around an image of the campus. Pointing the link from the main page to either one would be an improvement.

Alternatively, MU offers a number of classes in mapping, advanced cartography, Web development and graphic design. In any given semester, there are scores of students learning to put together maps that would make our current option look about as advanced as one of those Medieval maps that had "here be dragons" where Belgium should be. 

MU already makes millions by licensing the inventions of its students and researchers. Why not also harness student labor to improve the university's Web site? The school's well on its way down the slippery slope toward profiting from student efforts, so isn't it time to encourage professors to hand out homework that also happens to be useful in the real world? All it would take was one little assignment and Columbia would be done with this abomination forever. Which would be nice.

Andrew Van Dam is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism. He's from Idaho.


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Comments

Ellis Smith January 22, 2010 | 1:53 p.m.

From the description of the maps it appears the university system's so-called "flagship campus" resembles the famous ship "Titanic."

Your suggestions as to how to correct the situation seem worth pursuing. Good Lord! We're talking about maps, not rocket science.

Meanwhile, do not concern yourself about the "poor kid from Rolla," as he or she can easily remain at home and attend a campus that has a good map and far better curricula.

(Report Comment)
Brian Jarvis January 22, 2010 | 1:58 p.m.

I too have struggled to make sense of MU's online map until finally I gave up. You'd think it would be easy to fix. Nice column.

(Report Comment)
Angela Hamilton January 22, 2010 | 4:19 p.m.

"Map guano." Hee. Hilarious column, loved it.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock January 22, 2010 | 4:28 p.m.

I hated my first day at MU because of that map. lol. I once had a person ask me where a certain building was I referred them to google maps also. :)

(Report Comment)
Cassie Batchelder January 22, 2010 | 4:50 p.m.

Although current students may struggle with this map (although it makes sense enough to me), prospective students visiting campus receive an up-to-date map via mail or email when they register to visit with the Office of Admissions. This includes directions explaining the current campus construction projects and how to park and find their way accordingly. Generally this is the map you will see visitors using when they come to campus.

(Report Comment)
Michael Schrantz January 22, 2010 | 5:11 p.m.

The art corollary to the MU Campus map is Ellsworth Kelly.
http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_re...

Instead of this map, I use hand-held GPS to find buildings.

(Report Comment)

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