Digital Maps – The end of the beginning

As this announcement suggests at some point in 1998 we may finally see the last Landline tile leave Southampton on a CD marking the end of the first generation of digital mapping in Great Britain. At that point Landline as a nationally complete product will be 13 years old and based on a production process that started nearly 30 years previously !!

During this period of time Microsoft will have introduced at least 7 PC operating systems, assuming of course Longhorn will have been released by 2008 🙂
Oracle meanwhile will have introduced perhaps five major releases of its database.

So this begs the question why do data products develop so much more slowly than application software? In some ways the old idiom “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” might be part of this, but I’m rather afraid the lack of progress here is more to do with the perceived value of geographic information and how it has been applied.

The first generation of digital data products were developed to automate the map production process before sophisticated GIS tools became available – they were drawing files with information relevant to how the features represented should be drawn rather than having information about the features themselves. So when accessible GIS tools such as MapInfo and ArcView became widely available, products like Landline were used only as a graphic backdrop, there was little point linking to features which did not exist.

To a large extent the current use of geodata has been constricted by this, so with the introduction of the second generation of truly intelligent feature based products like MasterMap, the industry needs to reset its expectations to really exploit the value of the information now available.
Mastermap and a spatially aware database can answer questions that it was truly impossible to answer with products like Landline, with one SQL query I can calculate the number of residential properties within 500m of the new channel tunnel rail link and produce mailing labels – that is one step, maybe a couple of minutes processing – that really is progress we just need to recognise it.

Many of us of a certain age have fond memories of MS-DOS and Wordperfect and perhaps think we could actually use them productively today, but the reality is we would actually find it very constraining not to be able to cut and paste information, between applications running at the same time, on our pc’s which have access to almost unlimited amounts of memory.

We need to move on in terms of our perceptions of data and embrace the change.

Written and submitted from home, using my home 802.11 network.

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