cartography Thoughts

Cartography and the power of the image

Lisa and I sat down last night and watched the excellent first epsiode of a new BBC series Britain for Above, which uses beautiful aerial photography to illustrate what can best be described as the “Geography of Britain”. This looked fantastic in HD (Virgin media managed to key the one HD channel they supply working for a whole hour !) and I’m sure the series and its website, books and DVD it will be a great success.

This got me thinking as to the widespread appeal of aerial photography, and the contrast with popular perception of cartography. This is driven by the fact that I have two talks to give at the Royal Geographical Society and Society of Cartographers conference in September, and am thinking about the future of cartography.

It’s difficult to imagine Andrew Marr using topographic maps to explain.. the british transport network, or the structure of the city of London on prime time TV, but why is this? Of course the same spatial patterns are represented on a cartographic map, indeed there is much more information of an OS map than an aerial photo, so why are maps not more widely used by the mass media?

In the UK of course there are specific issues to do with licensing mapping, but I think there are two key issues..

Firstly topographic maps need to be interpreted requiring a knowledge of cartographic design standards; a river is a blue line, a major road is a red or green line (depending upon scale) and a motorway is a blue line, (but not the same blue as a river obviously).

Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.

Looking at aerial photography either vertical or oblique it is easy to identify natural and man made features based upon our direct experience, the amount of interpretation needed to recognise how a motorway might look from above compared to ground level is relatively small.


Secondly imagery as presented in last nights programme is dynamic, we were rarely presented with still images, instead we saw buses moving through London streets, trains approaching Waterloo station and ships sailing in the English Channel.

In itself, such dynamic content aids in the interpretation of the information presented, but this can be further enhanced as was done so last night by including animations which illustrated changes over a longer period of time.. the GPS traces of flights or taxi’s very well illustrated the economic structure of the UK.

So for cartography this raises an interesting challenge.. how can the art/science of map making really exploit the nature of soon to be dominant medium of electronic communications, rather than the static medium of paper and will the map of the future actually be an image ?

Written and submitted from the Google Office, London.

4 replies on “Cartography and the power of the image”

I felt that the program would have been all the better for some maps – even for some still images of the GPS traces (ie still image with moving traces) that would have allowed consideration of what they represented rather than a fleeting and impressionistic sense of the beautiful dance of data, goods etc around the country. Once you understand a map, it’s much easier to see what’s represented than in an aerial photo. Interestingly though, most of the GPS traces were against a very dark aerial photograph, rendering them almost maplike.

I too longed for some maps to be used as well as aerial photos, although the animations were in effect map-like images. I think the reason for the lack of map use in these situations is possibly because they need time to digest, and there is never enough time – it needs to move on to the next topic before losing people’s attention. For myself I wanted time to dwell on the imagery. I wanted to be able to explore the gaps in the flight paths that were referred to. Not necessarily to work out where the military installations were but to assess the areas of the country that were flight-free. Similarly I wanted time to take in where the taxi drivers were going when the main link roads became too busy. I haven’t had time to investigate whether the website has the animations, and whether they are available as slider-controlled animations – surely a useful adjunct to the programme if provided.
I actually think that maps can be easier to interpret than aerial photos, particularly with adequate time to do so. Map symbolisation is now highly codeified, and on topographic and transport mapping should be highly recognisable. I am sure the UK’s transport patterns could be well illustrated with the aid of maps of the tube network, and national rail network. Similarly, the flight paths overlaid on a map might have allowed identification of swathes of urban areas not affected. After all with current technologies the actual map elements can be animated where necessary. Maybe I am trying to apply too much geographical analysis to what was in fact an excellent example of the use of new graphical techniques to show interesting patterns and features of our daily lives. I am prompted to this train of thought by both watching the programme and by recently purchasing Simon Foxell’s excellent book “Mapping London: making sense of the city”. The many and varied cartographic examples, over a range of dates and topics, allow some fascinating insights into the development of London, in my view rather better than was shown by the second strand of the Britain from Above series that concentrated on the use of post-war RAF aerial imagery and recent comparable imagery to do the same. But then I have all the time in the world to pore over the imagery and text in the book – and certainly will do so.

There’s just something about imagery that really captures people’s attentions. I’ve noticed that over the years being in GIS, especially with the increased access to higher resolution imagery – I can present a well though out map but nothing seems to make people more aware than slapping an orthoimage behind the data. It’s almost become a prerequisite for any large scale map our group produces. Even before that, the very first images of the earth captured from space really mesmerized people.

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