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.