It's the mid-1920's and you're in a plane trying to navigate your way across the vastness of the United States. GPS hasn't been invented yet. VHF Omni Directional Radio Range, shortened to VOR, hasn't been invented yet. LFR, or Low Frequency Radio Range, hasn't been invented yet. How do you hope to stay on course?
Oh look. It’s another reworking of Harry Beck’s London Underground map. Ken Field probably won’t like it. This one is Doctor Who related. All the usual suspects are present. Each line representing one of the Doctors? Yes. Stations representing monsters and adversaries? Yes. Vague notions of interchanges between the lines? Oh yes.
Now I’ll freely admit I’ve been more than guilty of writing about re-workings of this particular map, at least 12 times. Doctor Who has been on, then off, then back on our TV screens for 50 years; longer than I’ve been around, but only by 2 years.
But I’ll also freely admit that Ken has a valid point. The tube map rework has been done to death. This is not to denigrate the amount of work that’s been put into such a map. Far from it. This is an obvious labour of love and many hours have been put in to make the map not only what it shows but how it shows it.
But it’s time to move on. Time to choose another way of representing interesting data. Time to move away from yet another map based around either the Underground map or some other, mass transit, map.
Though I often break them, my New Year’s Resolution for 2014 will be no more posts on variations of the London Underground map.
In his book A Zebra Is The Piano Of The Animal Kingdom, Jarod Kintz wrote “when you’re a cartographer, having to make maps sort of comes with the territory”. He’s right. When your business is making maps you should be able to do just that. But what if you’re not a cartographer? What if you had to draw a map of the country you live in? From memory? What would that map look like?
Maybe something like this perhaps? The shape of the United Kingdom and Ireland is vaguely right, though Cornwall and all of the Scottish islands bar the Shetlands seem to be lacking. Then again, the Isle Of Wight is on holiday off the North Coast of Wales. The Channel Islands have evicted the Isle Of Man, which is off sulking in the North Sea, probably annoying cross Channel ferries into the bargain. Also “Woo! Geography“.
Or maybe your lovingly hand drawn map would look like this one, which is my personal favourite for no other reason than the helpful arrow in the North East corner pointing to Iceland (Not The Shop). Readers of this blog who don’t live in the UK should know that in addition to being a Nordic island country that straddles the boundary between the North Atlantic and Artic Oceans, Iceland is also a chain of British stores that specialise in frozen food.
I’d like to think that I’d be able to do better than this final example from someone who has applied a significant amount of cartographical license and really, really needs someone to buy them an atlas. I’d like to think that. I might even try to do this myself, but in the interests of preserving what little reputation I have, I’d only post my attempt if it was any good.
The Wikipedia entry for George William Frederick of Hanover, better known as King George III of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, is full of details but misses out one key aspect of his life. In addition to concurrently being King, Duke and prince-elect of Brunswick-Lüneburg he was also a map addict and avid map collector.
During the course of his reign between 1760 and 1801, George amassed a collection of around 60,000 maps and views, all of which were housed in a room in Buckingham House (which eventually became Buckingham Palace in 1837) which was right next to his bedroom.
Upon his death, the map collection was bequeathed to the nation and now resides in the British Library and last night a lucky group of people, Alison and myself included, were given a rare chance to get to grips with some of the collection that focused on London. I use the phrase get to grips in the most literal sense. This was no viewing of maps in frames or behind glass. The maps were spread over the table of the library’s boardroom and we were encouraged to get really close and do what we so often want to do with an old map but aren’t usually allowed to. We got to touch them. We were even allowed to take photos too.
But how did George manage to amass such a prolific collection in 40 odd years? The collection started as the everyday working map library of previous British monarchs, dating back to 1660 and including maps from the times of Charles II, James II and Anne. With this smaller collection as a starting point, George continued his childhood fascination with maps and grew the collection by almost any means possible. When you’re a King almost anything and any means are possible.
Some maps were formally commissioned by George, or were presented to him as gifts as a sort of cartographic backhander. Some came into the collection during times of war or conflict, particularly some of the military maps in the collection. Some were stolen outright from foreign sources, whilst some came from much closer to home, from his own subjects.
There are stories that George would make random and unannounced visits to people who just so happened to have fine maps on their walls. If George expressed a liking for a map, this was supposed to be a signal that the map’s owner, might, just possibly, want to consider giving the map to the King, as a gift you understand. Most people who were the beneficiaries of one of the King’s unannounced visits took the hint and the collection grew steadily. But people also got wise to having their houses gatecrashed by their monarch and learned to keep their good maps hidden away. Just in case the next knock on the door turned out to be the King.
At the British Library, George’s map collection is formally known as King George III’s Topographical Collection, often shorted to the informal KTop. Of the 60,000 maps in KTop over 1,000 are of London. Work has been started on cataloging and ultimately digitising at high resolution all of the London maps. We will all get to benefit from this as the images will be made available for all to come and see on the British Library’s website. This is no trivial endeavour. To catalogue and digitise just the 1,000 London maps in the collection will cost £100,000, of which £10,000 is hoped to be raised through public donations. Yet this is just the start. The final goal is to do the same with the remaining 59,000 maps in the collection.
But until then, the collection remains safely stored somewhere in the depths of the library’s buildings on London’s Euston Road. I count myself very very lucky indeed to not only have seen some of the KTop with my own eyes but to have been able to reach out and touch a part of cartographic history.
The year 2013 has been a great year for maps and a greater year for maps in the United Kingdom, culminating in events that huddled together under the Maptember banner; OpenStreetMap’s State Of The Map, the AGI’s GeoCommunity and FOSS4G. But there was another event in 2013 that was map related and that was the 50th. anniversary of the British Cartographic Society’s Cartographic Journal.
First published in 1964 and edited under the watchful eye of fellow map geek and cartography nerd Ken Field, the Cartographic Journal has been around for longer than I have. Just. This is something that makes me feel slightly less old than I usually do. In February of this year, Ken got in touch with me and asked me if I’d be willing to contribute an article to the 50th anniversary edition of the journal by writing something that attempts to answer the question what does cartography mean to you? Naturally I had to think long and hard about this and after some 30 seconds emailed Ken back saying I’d be privileged and delighted to. So I started writing. As is so often the way, what finally transpired and was published in May, bore little resemblance to my initial thoughts, but thanks to a permissive licensing approach on the part of the publishers, I’m able to reproduce the article below.
This is not the article that I set out to write. The working title for that article was going to be something along the lines of cartography is subjective; my favourite map probably isn’t your favourite map. But every blog post, article or conference talk I write has to start somewhere and armed with this working title I set about trying to find my favourite map.
I was spoilt for choice as I had a vast array of sources to choose from. On Flickr there’s the photostream of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library with over 3,000 maps to choose from. Also on Flickr are all the maps I’ve come across and and have favourited. Then there are my tagged social bookmarks on Delicious plus a plethora of mapping and cartography related articles that sit within my browser’s bookmarks. That’s a lot of maps and that’s not even counting those that are offline in my reasonably large collection of map books.
I soon found out that reviewing all of these maps was by no means as simple a task as I’d first thought. I’d expected a favourite to leap out of the browser’s window or book’s page at me. Maps were certainly getting my attention but for the wrong reasons. I was able to discount maps I didn’t like or maps I was ambivalent about, but even getting the beginnings of a short list of favourites was proving a thankless task. There were just too many good maps. Time was passing and I wasn’t anywhere near finding a favourite map, let alone writing an article about it.
But as I continued browsing maps I noticed there was something else on my laptop’s screen that was vying for my attention. Actually there were two other things. One was a terminal window that was open and logged into a remote server somewhere on the Internet where I keep a large stash of geographic and mapping data. The other was the icon for the TextMate text editor, sitting in the dock of my MacBook Pro, which I use for coding things, usually maps related code. Realisation slowly dawned on me that my favourite map was yet to come into being; it was the next one that I would make, and the one after that and so on. What I would use to make my next map is what this article should be about.
Despite working with geographical data for almost 30 years, it was not until 2007 that I made the first map for myself. Now I’m not a cartographer or a professional map-maker; if I had to describe myself as anything I’d term myself as a hybrid of a geotechnologist, in the literal sense of someone who works with geography and technology, and a neogeographer.
The combination of geotechnology, of neogeography and more traditional cartographical disciplines has given us repeated phases of acceleration and disruption. In my opinion the uses of digital maps are in the tail end of the second wave of innovation and we’re starting to see the beginnings of a third wave. Each wave overlaps, there’s no clear border or delineation between them, but each wave has distinct characteristics.
When talking about making and using digital maps, the focus is on the way in which consumers, developers and the web use resources to create map based experiences, rather than the process of gathering the spatial data that underpins a digital map.
The first wave of digital maps was the combination of a various factors slowly coming together.
Critical Mass; The First Wave Precursor
If you look back to before 2005, digital maps were complex and costly to produce. If you worked in this field, you probably had specialist knowledge on how to manipulate geographic and spatial data sets. Part of the cost of early digital maps was the length of time it took to produce them. Large amounts of CPU cycles were needed to convert the map data vectors into the raster images to the Web needed. Another limiting factor was the cost of the disk storage that mapping data sets demanded. In 2000 a Gigabyte of disk space would cost you around $15, compared to the $9000 10 years earlier, but the days of cheap and affordable storage in multiples of Terabytes hadn’t yet arrived.
It was as difficult to use early digital maps, as it was to produce them. Availability and adoption of always-on broadband, was yet to arrive. The dominant form of Internet and web access was via dial-up modems, which were pitifully slow by today’s standards. The early digital map services were characterised by small maps to save on download times. These services were also functional maps with an emphasis on making conventional paper maps available online. There was little time or motivation in making interesting maps that were easy to use.
The First Wave; Mash Ups, Push Pins and Brands
The combination of fast CPUs, more bandwidth and cheaper larger storage came together in 2005 and the first wave of making digital maps started. It was in 2005 that Google launched their Maps API, followed in quick succession by similar offerings from Yahoo and from Microsoft. This was the wave of the web map mashup and it then that I made my first map. It was nothing special and nothing now remains of it, not even a screen shot. It was made using the Yahoo! Maps API and put push pins onto the Yahoo! Maps canvas. But it was the first map I made and I was proud of it at the time.
The first wave was also a branding wave. Whenever you made a web mashup you weren’t only creating a map customisation that worked with your data and for your intent. You were also helping the companies that produced web map APIs by giving them free advertising on your web site with their brand. The old adage about no such thing as a free lunch was very much in evidence and looking at the maps you find on today’s web, it’s still the case. With a few exceptions, a large web mapping corporate organisation powers almost every store finder or local product or service finder and their brand sits, sometimes uneasily, with the brand behind the web site.
This trade off between ease of use and availability of web maps and their branding and styling of was the stimulus behind the second wave of digital maps.
The Second Wave; Customisation And The Absence Of Brand
The second wave was the wave of customisable maps as well as of ‘open’ maps. The growth of the crowd sourced OpenStreetMap and the relatively open availability of being able to do interesting things with this data started to produce maps in all shapes, forms and most importantly, styles. OpenStreetMap itself was responsible for some of these styles, but companies such as CloudMade, founded in 2008 and San Francisco’s Stamen Design, founded in 2001, started to make digital map tiles that were not only wildly different to the stock corporate theme of the original set of mapping APIs but in some cases were works of art in their own right as well as being maps.
Hand in hand with the proliferation of map styles came mapping APIs which were in marked contrast to the APIs of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! The functionality available through all of the mapping APIs were roughly on a par. You created a basic HTML document and pointed an API at an element of that document which the API filled with a map on your behalf. The map is what we now term a slippy map; one that you can drag, pan and zoom around with a mouse or your finger. The map appears to slip around on the screen and is a viewport onto the larger one that appears to be hidden behind your web page. You can add controls to the map, you can add custom overlays onto it and in most cases you can even add other map tiles from a different source. But the starting point is always the originating company’s branded map and even if you can change the tile source to customise the map, not that many people will choose to do so. This is in much the same way as the web browser that comes preinstalled onto your computer is the one that most people tend to use. Even if you provide a way to customise something, only a small percentage of people will generally take advantage of that facility.
The second wave has also been a wave of opposites; of the brand-less map and of the return of the vector map.
Digital maps have almost always been vector maps at heart, but this has historically been a back end function in the map-making process. Rendering vectors in a browser or mobile app took processing power that just wasn’t available to the early digital maps, even if vector data is traditionally smaller and more compact than the bitmap images which power the traditional slippy map. But hand in hand with the use of vectors in mobile clients such as Google’s Maps app and Nokia’s HERE Maps app there’s also been a resurgence of the use of vectors in the browser.
Of course, in order to visualise vector data, you need vector data to work with in the first place and free and open sources of this are increasing rapidly from 2005’s GeoCommons (now owned by ESRI) to 2009’s Natural Earth in addition to proprietary vector data from the mapping corporates.
The Third Wave; Maps As A Service
We’re now at the tail end of the second wave and beginning to see the emergence of a third wave. This is the wave of maps as a service or MAAS, a specialisation of software as a service, commonly known by its SAAS acronym.
Maps as a service means more than just simply making the process of creating digital maps easier and more accessible. It also incorporates the process of creating map tiles and vectors and making them accessible to everyone. From open source projects such as TileDrawer to the growth and success of MapBox, you can now control and manage the entire production of a digital map, from raw data, through mapping API to final user experience.
The digital maps waves commenced with an initial critical mass. Fast broadband Internet pipes offer ever-increasing bandwidth. The processing speed of CPUs continues to prove Moore’s Law. The ever-decreasing price of mass storage is now levels that were almost unthinkable a decade ago. Digital maps have proliferated across our desktop and laptop computers, our mobile phones and tablets, across almost anything that is connected to the Internet.
Despite industry commentators predicting the death of the map, the digital map still remains one of the best ways of visualising geographic, spatial and local information. Even if you were never taught to read a map, a map is inherently comforting and familiar and we automatically orientate ourselves to one.
Looking Forwards; Repetition And The Unexpected
We’re now in the early stages of the third wave of making and sharing digital maps, be they bitmap based slippy maps, vector maps or 3D maps. Each wave has built on the success of the previous, usually accompanied by challenging the existing status quo. There is much irony here, when one considers that the origin of a wave is often said to be a disturbance in the surrounding medium.
Wherever the third wave takes the map and in whatever shape or form the inevitable fourth wave takes is unclear but the continuing development and innovation around the map is one of the key things that keeps making maps so compelling and such an interesting space to work in. As the return to vector maps shows, the waves of digital maps are a unique intersection between revisiting and learning from past technologies and innovation and disruption. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw slightly history repeats itself and the unexpected always happens.