The Golden Age of Cartography is Now

This is an exciting time to be a cartographer. Cartography has changed more in the past 5 years than in the previous 50, and the field is in the midst of an unprecedented revolution that has forever altered what maps can do, and how and why we use maps. How far have we come? I now see teenagers using on-demand, customizable maps rendered in real time from multiple, distributed data sources on their cell phones that automatically geotag and upload photos to their blogs while they sit on the bus. Five years ago, heck, one year ago this would have been science fiction, now it's just a collection of geoservices on a $200 phone. As a result, mapping technology has quickly outpaced mapping theory and practice.

While much attention has (rightly) been focused on the technology that is enabling these amazing advances  (Google Earth, mash-ups), I think the equally significant change is why people are making maps and the role maps now play in our everyday lives.

Take "pocketcasting" for example, the next step in social networking, where folks geo-broadcast their locations so they can see where their friends are at any given moment allowing unplanned meetings ("I'm at this cafe!" as a kind of mass, voluntary, geo-voyeurism). This adds a degree of instantaneous spatial awareness to our social lives that would have been impossible without the serendipitous convergence of technologies like GPS, wireless networks, and customizable on-demand maps. Other new ways the public is using maps include monitoring traffic conditions in real-time or using Google's wonderful streetview to check-out a potential new home virtually. One thing is clear: Maps have become fully integrated into the fabric of our lives in ways we couldn't have imagined a few years ago.

Beyond the popularity of these maps, however, has been the complete blurring of the distinctions between map maker and map reader, data provider and data user. It is precisely this tectonic shift in the world of cartography that underlies the philosophy of GeoCommons Maker!, the product we've been jointly developing with the powerhouse team at FortiusOne, described by the O'Reilly Radar as "a Flickr/Swivel/YouTube/Scribd of geodata." Maker is at the vanguard of the democratization of cartography and the promise of Web 2.0 services that eliminate the need for expensive software/data for most casual 'citizen cartographers' and allows people to make great looking maps quickly while guiding them through the process. We here at Axis Maps feel strongly that powerful tools (e.g., desktop GIS) aren't much good if they don't provide guidance - it's like giving the keys of an F-16 to someone who doesn't know how to fly. Furthermore, while an F-16 is amazing, few folks actually need one. Same with $30,000 mapping software.

One of the reasons we like Maker! is that it empowers people - who otherwise would never be able to participate - to make their own maps and start publishing, sharing, and commenting on geographic data and the things we learn from those data. High-end, professional cartography is not going to disappear, and the world will always need premium map products (such as National Geographic Atlases or legally-binding land surveys). The same is true of professional authors and photographers; neither blogging nor Flickr have eliminated the need for these professionals, rather they have opened up these activities to a much larger group and drawn people into the process, rather than relegate them merely to being spectators to the process.

One thing is clear: As the GeoWeb/Web2.0 revolution continues, we need to move beyond paper map thinking and starting seeing maps much more broadly as services that can be integrated with other services. As a professional cartographer this means to me that the "rules" of cartography established through a century of study and practice are now up for grabs at the very moment mapping finds itself in a multi-billion dollar spotlight from both the private and public sectors. Some of the biggest companies in the world (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!) are betting a big chunk of their digital future on maps and the central role they want cartography to play in their digital empires. With the backing of these companies, digital, on-demand maps have gone from technological curiosities to everyday tools worth billions of dollars. This begs the question: Where is mapping headed and what might our maps do for us in 10 years?

Further questions we need to think carefully about (these are the sorts of questions that keep us up at night!!)...

  • How much of what we have learned about static maps—both in practice and theory—holds true when these maps become animated, interactive, and customizable?
  • What are the relative merits of 2D versus 3D?
  • How do we keep users from becoming disoriented and lost in 3D immersive maps?
  • What are the perceptual limits of animation and for what kinds of map reading tasks (e.g., rate estimation, change detection) are animated maps especially well-suited (and how could those tasks be better supported)?
  • How can we reduce the problem of "split attention" in immersive and visually-rich environments like Google Earth?
  • How can we create intelligent Web-based software that is both easy to use and powerful? To what degree can the map-design process be automated to further the democratization of map-making? How can we help novices to think like experts?
  • What should our map interfaces look like and why? How does the map interface structure the user's experience? How do we know if our map interfaces work?
  • Who benefits from these billions being invested in mapping?
  • How does this technology change the way we do business and the way we interact with each other?
  • What are the limitations and liabilities of decentralized data structures and technologies that run on volunteered geographic data?