cartography Google Maps Thoughts

Cartography is dead, long live the map makers

Seems like only last year, ah yes it was last year, that the bored press hits upon it annual “shock horror – nobody can read maps” story. This year there is a slightly different spin, due to the input of the British Cartographic Society (BCS) complaining that nobody is creating maps like they used to.. 

Modern online maps and satnavs don’t display as much detail, it is argued by the BCS, missing out features like churches, village greens , etc., of course this is rubbish! Most online maps contain more detail than any traditionally designed map could ever do, but that detail is hidden behind an interactive interface, features are displayed dependent upon the level of zoom (scale) or the purpose of the map itself.

Cartography the craft of compiling maps by selecting the information to be displayed and how it is to be represented in print, has a long history, but the traditional skill is becoming less relevant as the final media used to communicate is rarely paper, hence this desperate cry for attention. 

That’s not to say the principals of design are not important in the creation of “maps” for screen display, indeed one could argue for the need of a “new” cartography which adopts rather than ignores the capabilities of screen based maps to portray information dynamically.

The criticism also fails to take into account the biggest impact of the online revolution as far a mapping is concerned, now anyone with a web browser can be the publisher of maps, you no longer need to be a government institution or a large commercial company to produce a map and publish it to a global audience, Mash-ups anyone ?

Will the people mapping the impact of Hurricane Gustav over the next few days, care that perhaps they don’t have the academic qualifications and experience to call themselves cartographers or will they just get on and share useful information more quickly that could every have been done before ?

As the courses offering to teach cartography close down, there is no dedicated course in cartography taught at any UK university anymore for example, the craft/science of cartography has a choice adapt to a new world or face the same fate as  Coopers, Millrights, Locomotive firemen, and Chimney-sweeps!

“Cor blimey Mary Poppins, they don’t need us cartographers to make their maps anymore and no mistake”

If you think this seems farfetched, there is reason behind my Disney reference..

In the early 1990’s Disney Animation Studios was having great success with movies such as the Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Indeed they opened up an animation studio as part of the theme park in Florida, so that visitors could see animators working on the next film in production. I visiting this studio two weeks ago on vacation, it was shut down in 2004, when Disney stopped it’s traditional animation efforts, as it began concentrating on its own computer generated efforts and the outputs of the young upstarts at Pixar.

I’m sure at one point the animators of Disney looked at the crude early output of pixar and had similar comments to those of the BCS president, lets hope she and the cartographers she represents are able to adapt to the new technology, as the change is coming and the pixar of the cartographic world is an army of thousands of map-makers contributing to the most detailed global map every produced.. The GeoWeb.

Written and submitted from the BA T5 Lounge at Heathrow Airport, using it’s free 802.11 network.

25 replies on “Cartography is dead, long live the map makers”

Hearing the BCS make an argument of “missing details” is quite funny. The BCS represents what may be a long line of folks who determine what gets on a map. The act of mapping something elevates it’s relative level of existence. Something “off the map” exists in a grey area where there may “lie dragons”.

The GeoWeb gives the map user control over what is on the map (or, you could argue, Google controls what’s on the map based on what they can index). Mashups give the “neogeographer” the ability to mix in their own data in ways that doesn’t involve an advanced degree in cartography.

And yeah, you don’t need to read a map the same way you used to because the map now knows where it is! Why is being able to triangulate your location using a compass and landmarks such a necessary skill? How many people driving cars know how to change the oil or even change the tire?

I think that to say cartography is dead and then go on to say that on-screen map design is needed – shows a misunderstanding of cartographic principles.
These principles (of which “cartography” is made of) can be applied to ALL mapping. It’s about choosing the right scale, generalising the data, text placement, colour choice, etc,etc, that means the map is useful to the end user. Cartography is not exclusively paper-based, it applies to all forms of media and is easily transferable.
I think you’d be hard pushed to find any cartographers with only the traditional pen and ink skills anymore – we have moved with the times – trust me… Just look at the OpenStreetMap Project (as Mary Spence said in her BBC interview – the first step in the fight back against “corporate blankwash”) – we like OS maps but are hard up due to the credit crunch and unlikely to pay for it!!.
And yes – I’m a cartographer – and proud of it!

I attended an AGI conference recently on cartographic design – given by Mary Spence plus someone else. Now I’m not a cartographer, but I do make maps and work in a group that publishes both hardcopy and online maps. Whilst a lot of the material presented was useful and the concepts apply across all geodata, what staggered me was the complete lack of reference to online mapping. There was one oblique reference to Google Maps, but nothing else. They need to realise, the principals are as relevant to online maps as printed ones (perhaps more so – no excuse for bad design) but please realise the medium is changing very quickly and they are about to get left behind. Disney have made some wonderful dinosaur movies too.

I’ve often considered that the role of “cartographers” originated from their ability to present information. As the people discovered more about the world they lived in, there was a need to portray it. Cartographers created maps, adorned with all sorts of information and pictures.

Today’s medium has changed – but the need to present information spatially has not. Perhaps this is the challenge cartographers face: embrace today’s technologies for presenting information spatially. Its always been more than maps!

I think online mapping is great but I have problems with “mash-ups” and allowing anyone to create/publish maps. “Mash-ups” is a hideous term that suggests the map has been bodged together. Surely a better term is needed than one I first came across with bootleg records where the vocals from one track are mashed-up with the instrumental from another.

In the worst case scenario, bad data can be presented badly and lead to bad decisions being made. Does it ever get updated, and if so when? Publishing the foot and mouth protection zone on Google maps is great but did the Google map get updated as the zones changed on a daily basis?

Of course, there’s no guarantee that official or expert bodies will get it right. The plans to publish UK crime data are a good example of this. (see BBC website article)

Online maps and “mash-ups” are great but you can’t just throw a load of data on a map and expect it to work.

[…] Ed Parsons, who was quoted in the original coverage, calls this “the annual ‘shock horror — nobody can read maps’ story” and a “desperate cry for attention.” He argues that the principles of cartographic design need to adapt to screen-based rather than paper maps. Most online maps contain more detail than any traditionally designed map could ever do, but that detail is hidden behind an interactive interface, features are displayed dependent upon the level of zoom (scale) or the purpose of the map itself. … The criticism also fails to take into account the biggest impact of the online revolution as far a mapping is concerned, now anyone with a web browser can be the publisher of maps, you no longer need to be a government institution or a large commercial company to produce a map and publish it to a global audience. […]

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