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Guide books aren’t going to die. Online guides & apps aren’t necessarily up to date.

My right eye is twitching.

I’m 32–almost 33–and I don’t wear glasses or contact lenses. Never have. But these might just be the two projects that change all that. I’ve even taken a weekend offline (well, mostly offline) and the visual fatigue doesn’t seem to be getting better.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been fact checking and updating an online travel guide. The work involves scanning the seemingly infinite fields of an Internet database and making sure all the information–address, phone number, website, days/hours of operation, and lots of little details–are all current. I tick off boxes, delete defunct URLs, and switch between screens to enter information, usually while running back and forth to the kitchen to make verification phone calls (the kitchen is the only place where we get decent phone reception). Finally, late on a Saturday night, the work is finished. For today, at least, we can be sure that the information about the 225 businesses is correct.

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I’ve also been working, for months now, on an iPhone app. I have complete control of the entries I want to include, but the same basic information has to be sourced and verified for each. More phone calls, more (usually fruitless) Googling. More cutting and pasting, and squinting at the computer screen for hours. Can the person on the other end of the line repeat the days and hours again? And again?

“Well, keep in mind, these are only seasonal hours,” one restaurant owner tells me at the end of a call. “This will all change next week.” “Things have been slow lately,” a shopkeeper tells me. “So we close at 5, sometimes at 6.” I hang up the phone and rub my eyes. Again.

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There’s a pervasive myth that printed guide books are soon to be relegated to obscurity, destined to become curious historical artifacts that document our 20th and 21st century travel interests. The myth spreads because people believe the Internet and apps provide a logical, real-time replacement of the guide book. The information in a guide book is outdated before the book even hits the shelves. The information on the Internet, in contrast, is considered  up to date.

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Having worked on all three types of guides now–the traditional printed guide book, the online travel guide, and an iPhone app–I know that the argument is largely baseless… at least for Puerto Rico. A business’ days and hours, the payment methods it accepts, its very existence… they’re all subject to quotidian developments like rising rents, corporate takeovers,technological innovations, owner fatigue, and seasonal slumps. Phone numbers get disconnected. Mindspring email accounts are replaced by gmail. 300 slot machines are now 324. Believe me, that may not , matter to you, but it matters to someone, and they’re going to be pissed if the information you provide is wrong.

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When it comes right down to it, these three forms of guides aren’t all that different.

The business travel guide to Guadalajara I updated in 2008–which is online–has just come up for a revision. That’s two full years–about the same life cycle as an update for most guide books. The information on the iPhone will only be as current as my updates are. I’ve got the ambitious goal of doing a monthly update, but setting up the architecture for a fact check system is more time-consuming than you’d think.

The take-away for people who depend upon travel guides should be obvious enough. Don’t rely on the guide book, the online travel guide, or the mobile app to contain up-to-the-minute information that’s 100% accurate. Don’t even depend on a business’ website for the current information. Call and confirm.

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