cartography Ordnance Survey

On the Map

I have really enjoyed listening to the BBC Radio 4 series “On the Map” a series on mapping presented by Mike Parker a self-confessed OS Map fan, and author of Map Addict a recommended read.

Now Mike is very much a OS paper maps man, so in today’s programme I attempt to defend digital mapping against the acquisition that digital mapping and satnavs are destroying map-making and map-reading.

And on such a momentous day in the history of the Ordnance Survey data.

Written and submitted from The Residence Inn, Palo Alto (37.392N, 122.095W)
Update & Rant : Having listened to the programme on my return to UK I’m afraid I continue to be dismayed at the attitude of the cartographic establishment to digital mapping.
Why don’t we see cartographers embracing the opportunities now possible with digital data and tools, rather than just making snide comments about “power cuts”, rejecting change and resting on their misplaced belief the Britain leads the world in cartography.
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.

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.