[Taxacom] Impossible geocodes

Doug Yanega dyanega at ucr.edu
Sat Jan 24 15:52:36 CST 2015

On 1/24/15 12:04 PM, Alec McClay wrote:
> It's a vain hope, I know, and there is lots of legacy data out there 
> in every possible format. But can't we decide from here on just to use 
> decimal degrees for latitudes and longitudes? They're just numbers, 
> after all. Why do we have to treat them as being made up of weird 
> multiples of 60 instead of using the decimal format that we use for 
> every other unit? Pounds, shillings and pence are long gone - so 
> should minutes and seconds be.
This could turn into a long and convoluted discussion, but bear in mind 
just a few points:

(1) you'll find plenty of scientists who don't use DMS (latitude and 
longitude) at all, but instead rely on UTM or TRS (Township, Range, 
Section) coordinates, and they'll give you their own lengthy arguments 
as to why, often focusing on it being the ironclad tradition in their 
line of work.
(2) you'll find plenty of people who use actual paper atlases or topo 
maps for a LOT of their work, and most such paper maps are either 
non-decimal DMS, or TRS. If someone gives you a decimal DMS value for a 
patch of some rare plant you need to collect pollinators from, and the 
map in your car is standard DMS, you may have serious trouble driving to 
the right spot unless you take the time to sit down and convert from one 
format to the other, which requires computer access. Further, the ease 
of reading a paper map is related to how easily your eye can follow the 
grid lines on the face of the map - and printed decimal maps are harder 
to use in that respect (the ones I've seen have no grid at all, just 
numbers along the edge, and you need a ruler to track vertical and 
horizontal lines if you want to be precise).
(3) People who *DO* routinely use decimal DMS often do so using a 
computer, and an interface like Google Earth, meaning they typically 
have the capacity to convert different types of coordinates right there 
at their fingertips; if you give them coordinates in other formats, 
THOSE people have little or no trouble getting anything into decimal 
format or finding the spot on their digital map - but the converse is 
not true. They have less trouble using other people's data than other 
people have using theirs, so there is an asymmetrical burden if one 
applies a higher standard.

Even if you, personally, don't use paper maps, or work with UTMs, there 
is still something to be said for having standards that are *more* 
inclusive, rather than less. If your aim is to impose higher standards, 
then it is unfair to do so without giving a practical explanation as to 
how you intend to supply those who are still using more "primitive" 
systems with a replacement *they can use* (that is up to the new 
standard), and doesn't require them to invest significant time or money. 
For example, can you convince the USGS to re-issue all of their printed 
topo maps using decimal coordinates superimposed with non-decimal, and 
TRS, all on the same maps, *and* make them available for free? Can you 
provide an app that allows people to see UTM or TRS coordinates *and* 
decimal DMS displayed simultaneously on their GPS-enabled device? Once 
resources like that are freely available, then it would be reasonable to 
expect people to switch - by weaning them off their old systems 
gradually. Just think how annoyed you get when you upgrade to a new 
operating system, and suddenly a pile of your old programs stop working; 
if you want people to upgrade willingly, then give them something cheap, 
easy, and backwards-compatible, rather than forcing the upgrade down 
their throats. ;-)


Doug Yanega      Dept. of Entomology       Entomology Research Museum
Univ. of California, Riverside, CA 92521-0314     skype: dyanega
phone: (951) 827-4315 (disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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