Posts Tagged ‘teddington’

Welcome To The Republic Of Null Island

In English, null means nothing, nil, empty or void. In computing, null is a special value for nothing, an empty value. In geography, null tends to be what you get when you’ve been unable to geocode a place or an address and haven’t checked the geocoder’s response. What you end up with is a pair of coordinates of 0 degrees longitude and 0 degrees latitude, a point somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, south of Ghana and west of Gabon. It’s here that you’ll also find Null Island, if you look hard enough.

The website for the Republic of Null Island (like no place on earth) says this about the island’s location …

The Republic of Null Island is one of the smallest and least-visited nations on Earth. Situated where the Prime Meridian crosses the Equator, Null Island sits 1600 kilometres off the western coast of Africa.

… but Null Island is an in joke created by Nate Kelso and Tom Patterson as part of the Natural Earth data set in January 2011.


It’s totally fictitious and is designed as a gentle poke in the ribs for people who don’t check the return value from their geocoder and end up putting a pin on a web map in the middle of the ocean. As Natural Earth’s release notes mention …

WARNING: A troubleshooting country has been added with an Indeterminate sovereignty class called Null Island. It is a fictional, 1 meter square island located off Africa where the equator and prime meridian cross. Being centered at 0,0 (zero latitude, zero longitude) it is useful for flagging geocode failures which are routed to 0,0 by most mapping services. Aside: “Null Islands” exist for all local coordinate reference systems besides WGS84 like State Plane (and global if not using modern Greenwich prime meridian). Null Island in Natural Earth is scaleRank 100, indicating it should never be shown in mapping.

Look carefully enough, especially on web sites that handle large amounts of data from third parties and which helpfully supply a map for some additional context, such as property sites, who should really know better and Null Island may just appear before your eyes.


Take for example, who have a 3 bedroom property near Enfield in North East London for sale, yours for just £995,000. Whathouse helpfully provide a map tab on their property listings to that if you’re not familiar with where the N9 postal district of London is, you can find out.


This is in London, the capital of the United Kingdom, which as far as I know hasn’t suffered massive continental drift to end up in the middle of the ocean.


Zoom the map out and you can see why this unique property seems to be alone in the middle of the ocean; it’s really on Null Island. Either that or someone hasn’t been checking their geocoding results properly. A bad geocoding result is almost probably definitely the reason for this little geographic faux pas, but a part of me likes to think that Null Island really does exist and you really can spend close to a million pounds securing a 3 bedroom apartment on one of geography’s most tongue in cheek places.

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Cartography, The Musical

I like maps. Even if you’ve never read posts on this site, the name “Mostly Maps” should probably be a giveaway. What you may not know is that I don’t really like musicals. Now granted I’ve seen Rent and Spamalot, but that’s because Alison and I were in New York and the former was recommended by one of my best friends and for the latter I’m a massive Python fan. Maps and musicals aren’t something that go together. But that may be about to change.

Cast your mind back to the dawn of history, before mobile phones were smart and when GPS was just an Australian rugby club, which is sometime in the very early 2000’s. If you lived in London, your essential navigation guide wasn’t a maps app, but a copy of the A-Z as the Geographer’s A-Z Street Atlas was better known. This was the map you carried around London rather than a mapping app on your phone. I still have several editions on the bookshelf at home, each one being bought when its predecessor got so dog eared as to be unusable or just started falling apart.


The probably apocryphal backstory is that the A-Z’s founder, Phyllis Pearsall got lost in 1935 following a 1919 Ordnance Survey map on the way to a party and decided to make her own map. To do this she got up at 5.00 AM and spent 18 hours a day walking the 3,000 odd miles of London’s 23,00 or so streets. This tale is disputed, with Peter Barber, the British Library’s Head Of Maps, being quoted as saying “The Phyllis Pearsall story is complete rubbish, there is no evidence she did it and if she did do it, she didn’t need to“. Given that Pearsall’s father was a map maker who produced and sold maps of London, he’s got a point.

But regardless of the accuracy of the legend around Phyllis Pearsal, it’s a great story, especially for those of us who used the A-Z each and every day around London. But is it a musical story? Neil Marcus, Diane Samuels and Gwyneth Herbert seem to think so and they’re the team behind The A-Z Of Mrs. P, a musical about London’s iconic street atlas and its founder that’s currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse. Reviews have been mixed, but anything that throws some attention on the A-Z is welcome in my book, even if it is a musical.


You may have noticed that at the foot of each post I always try to provide source and attribution for photos or images that I use. I think I’m going to have to expand this to include the inspiration for each post. In this particular case, credit is due to Alison. If it’s not a sign of true love when your wife texts you to tell you about something map related she’s seen, then I don’t know what is. I guess you don’t spend nearly 15 years being married to a self professed map nerd without knowing a good map related story when you see one.

The A-Z Of Mrs. P poster by Su Blackwell.
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In India Just Because You Can Map Something, Doesn’t Always Mean You Should

It’s easy to get stuck in a mental rut, to think that everyone thinks and feels the same way you do about a subject. But sometimes you need to get away and visit another country and another culture to find out that maybe there’s more than one way of looking at a subject. For me that subject is, unsurprisingly, maps and the other country was India.

Some countries are easier to map than others. Up to the end of the Cold War, it was commonplace for the UK’s Ordnance Survey to not show prohibited places, although this practice has been effectively stopped due to the widespread availability of satellite imagery. Further afield, there’s contested borders and territorial disputes which makes mapping some administrative boundaries something of a challenge; a proof of the old adage about pleasing some people some of the time but not all people all of the time.

It’s easy to think that not mapping an area is a thing of the past. That we can and should map everywhere. That mapping is simply the combination of human effort, a bit of technology and a lot of data. Indeed OpenStreetMap’s beginner’s guide states upfront that the data you add improves the free world map for everyone. But as I found out, in India, there’s a lot more subtlety and nuance behind this admirable creed.

Firstly there’s the act of mapping itself. As with pre-Cold War Britain (and to be fair, some parts of Britain today), India has placed restrictions on what can and cannot appear on a map. When working for Nokia’s HERE Maps, I ran a program to use crowd mapping to improve the company’s maps in India and came across these restrictions first hand. My point here is not to agree or disagree with a government’s stance on mapping restrictions but merely to point out that they exist.


But it’s not just the government who would prefer you not to map places, it’s the people as well in some cases. According to recent figures, India has a population of around 1.27 billion people; of these, over 65 million live in slums. Sadly this wasn’t a shock; I’d been well prepared for slums from my visit to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania at the end of 2012.


In Dar es Salaam, you map slums to help the occupants find vital facilities; fresh water, sanitation, health care and so on. You use the map to bring the slum to the authorities attention so they do something about it. Making a map is vital. But not necessarily so in India. Indian slums are hidden in plain sight. Everyone knows they’re there, but they don’t always bring attention to themselves. Putting a slum on the map runs the risk of bringing some potential prime real estate land to the attention of an unscrupulous property developer; some of whom have been known to raze a slum to the ground overnight and displacing the residents through the judicious use of bulldozers.

Another subtlety that doesn’t apply in the United Kingdom are the locations of the Cheel Ghar in Indian cities, which translates to Tower of Silence in English. These are the circular raised structures where Parsi followers of the Zoroastrian faith leave their dead and let exposure to the sun and birds of prey reduce the body to bare bones. Originally these towers were outside the boundaries of the city, but the rapid growth of India’s metropolitan areas have engulfed the Cheel Ghar, leaving them as small forested oases inside the urban sprawl. Even if you know where they are, and I walked past one without knowing it until it was pointed out to me, putting these sacred places on a map would not be deemed acceptable by adherents of that faith. Just because you can map something, doesn’t always mean you should.


But even if you make an accurate and detailed map, how do you cope with the vagaries and eccentricities of the Indian addressing system? I asked someone at the GeoMob meets GeoBLR meetup we ran in Bangalore how they’d geocode (turn addresses into longitude and latitude) a batch of a thousand or so addresses. The answer was blunt and succinct … “Geocode that many addresses? We wouldn’t”. There’s a long running joke in India to effect that the country does has GPS, but it doesn’t stand for Global Positioning System, instead it stands for General Populace System. You look at an address, get to the nearest spot and then ask someone, repeating the process until you reach your destination.

Given how visual and landmark based Indian addresses are, this approach makes a lot of sense. In India I stayed at 3 different hotels in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. In Delhi, the address was Ring Road, New Delhi; in Mumbai it was Western Express Highway, Santacruz East and in Bangalore Swami Vivekananda Road, Off M.G. Road, Ulsoor. Standing outside each hotel and looking around, the addresses made a lot of sense, in Bangalore I was just off the M.G Road, named after Mahatma Gandhi; there’s a lot of M.G. Roads in India, the equivalent of High Street in Britain. Other addresses include location clues such as near, opposite and by. If you really, really need to geocode an address you look it up on a digital map and make a note of the coordinates; a very manual and not at all scalable way of dealing with the problem.


Reading all of the above back to myself before I click on Publish makes me realise that in hindsight it’s blindingly obvious that each country will have its own set of edge cases. India is no exception. A massive amount of credit for what I learned in India should go to Sajjad, Sumandro and Kaustubh, the team behind Bangalore’s GeoBLR geo themed meetup. Thank you all, you taught me a massive amount and expanded my horizons considerably.

Tower of Silence (for Parsi Sky Burial): Mumbai by James Oleson on Flickr.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

The London Underground Strike Map

If you’re trying to get out and about in London today you’ve probably noticed that the Tube is on strike. Again. You could read the list of closed stations that are on Transport for London’s website and try and work out quite how, if at all, you’re going to get to where you want to be. Or you could look at a map.

This map. Now why didn’t TfL think of doing this?


Strike map by Ian Visits on Flickr.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Gazing Into The Geo Crystal Ball For 2014

In the closing days of 2013, Atanas Entchev, who together with Glenn Letham are the duo behind the intriguing GeoHipster, got in touch to ask me to do some crystal ball gazing and predict what’s in store for the geo industry in 2014.

You can and should read all of the 10 other predictions as part of what will be HOT in geo in 2014 — predictions from the GeoHipster crowd, but here’s what the geo crystal ball divulged to my gazing …

Predictions are easy to get right. After all, look at DEC’s Ken Olsen when he said in 1977 that “there’s no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home”.


No. Wait. Predictions are hard. But throwing caution and any shred of professional integrity I have to the wind, here’s my predictions for the geo industry in 2014.

Raster web map tiles aren’t going to go anywhere in 2014, but expect to see much more use of vector maps, both in consumer front ends, in open data sources and in development toolkits. The winning combination of Leaflet and D3 is but the beginning.

Due to ever increasing licensing costs for base map data and corresponding reduced terms of use, at least one major maps destination site will either throw in the towel or go for a white labelled map platform deal; MapQuest I’m looking at you here.

We’re already seeing the stratification of the geo industry. We already have data-as-a-service (think Open Cage Data – [disclaimer; I’m an advisor to Open Cage Data] and GeoFabrik) and maps-as-a-service (hello MapBox). Next up will be imagery-as-a-service as companies such as Planet Labs and Skybox Imaging disrupt Digital Globe’s imaging hegemony.


More people will end up doing web-based GIS without actually knowing they’re doing web-based GIS. Think less of Esri’s ArcGIS Online and MapInfo’s Web GIS and much more of CartoDB.

Web based map re-workings of Harry Beck’s iconic London Underground map will die out and Ken Field will be a happy man.

Finally, this is less of a prediction and more of a plea. Will someone please please bring to market a low powered, always on GPS unit that I can fit in my pocket and that has sufficient onboard storage to carry at least a day’s worth of GPS traces. It can’t be that difficult can it?

Ken Olsen picture courtesy of the Boston Globe, Crystal Ball image by Scott Kublin.
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Farewell Ovi, Nokia And HERE; It’s Time To Open The Next Door

This may be a personal foible but when I join a new company I mentally set myself two targets. The first is what I want to achieve with that company. The second is how long it will take to achieve this. If you reach the first target then the second is a moot point. But if the first target doesn’t get reached and your self allocated timescale is close to coming to an end, then it’s time to take stock.

Sometimes you can extend that timescale; when reaching your achievement target is so so close and you can be happy to stretch those timescales a little. Sometimes though this just doesn’t work, not necessarily for any reason of your own making. Large companies are strange beasts and a strategic move which is right for the company may not align with your own targets and ideals.

In 2010, I left the Geo Technologies group at Yahoo! and departed from a very Californian large company to take up a new role with a very Finnish large company called Nokia. Though Nokia started life as the merger between a paper mill operation, a rubber company and a cable company in the mid 1800’s, by the time I joined Nokia it was best known for mobile and smart phone handsets and the software that makes these ubiquitous black mirrors work.

In addition to mobile data connectivity, apps and GPS, one of the things that defines a smartphone is a maps app and the suite of back-end platforms that drive that app as well as all of the other APIs that enable today’s smartphone location based services. Just as TomTom acquired digital map maker Tele Atlas in 2008, Nokia had acquired rival maps provider NAVTEQ in 2007, putting in place the foundations for Nokia’s maps and turn-by-turn navigation products, part of the company’s Ovi brand of internet services.


I spent the first 18 months of my time with Nokia commuting weekly from London to Berlin, where the company’s maps division was based. The pros of this weekly commute of almost 600 miles each way was rapid progression through British Airway’s frequent flyer program, getting to know the city of Berlin really well and developing deep and lasting friendships with my team, who were behind the Ovi Places Registry, but more about them in a moment. The cons were living out of hotels on a weekly basis and the strain it placed on my family back in London.


In 2011, Nokia pivoted its strategy as a result of new CEO Stephen Elop’s infamous Burning Platform memo. The company’s NAVTEQ division finally started to be integrated into Nokia, resulting in the rebranding of Ovi Maps to HERE Maps, by way of a brief spell as Nokia Maps and just before we were ready to ship the next major revision of the Places Registry, effectively powering all the data you see on a map which isn’t part of the base map itself, the project was shelved in favour of NAVTEQ based places platform. This was probably the right thing to do from the perspective of the company, but it had a devastating effect on my Berlin based team who had laboured long and hard. The team was disbanded; some found new roles within the company, some didn’t and were laid off and after spending several months tearing down what I’d spent so long helping to create, an agonising process in itself even though it was the right thing to do, I moved to help found the company crowd mapping group, driving the strategy behind the HERE Map Creator product. Think of a strategy not dissimilar to OpenStreetMap or Google Map Maker, only with a robust navigation grade map behind it.


All of which is merely a prelude to the fact that after almost 4 years with Nokia I’ve been taking stock and it’s time to move on. The door marked Nokia, Ovi and HERE is now closed and it’s time to look to the next adventure in what could loosely be termed my career. The metaphor of doors opening and closing seems fitting as Ovi just happens to be the Finnish word for door.

There’s been a lot of high points over the past 4 or so years. Launching Nokia’s maps and location platform at the final Where 2.0 conference in San Francisco. Negotiating the places section of Nokia’s first strategic deal with Microsoft in a meeting room set against the amazing backdrop of Reykjavik in the depths of an Icelandic winter. Judging the World Bank’s Sanitation Hackathon in Dar es Salaam.


But most of the high points have been people.

Someone who leads a team is only as good as the team and in the original Ovi Places Registry team and the subsequent Nokia Places team I found an amazing group of individuals, who made a roving Englishman feel very much at home in Berlin.

There’s also been a lot of lows over the past 4 years, but I don’t want to go into them here.

Instead, I want to close the door on the Nokia chapter with a brief mention to five people who made my time in Berlin so rich and rewarding. There’s Aaron Rincover, HERE’s UX lead, who taught me so much about the user experience in a relatively short period of time. There’s also four members of the Places Registry team, Enda Farrell, Jennifer Allen, Mark MacMahon and Jilles Van Gurp, who made me welcome in a new city, who it was an absolute pleasure to work with and who will, I hope, remain close friends. Enda and Jennifer are still both at HERE as Senior Technical Architect and Product Manager and a damn fine ones at that. Mark and Jilles were amongst those who moved on when the Places team was disbanded and are now the founders of LocalStream. Thank you all of you.

So where next? My last two companies have been large multinational affairs, but to open 2014 I’m looking to keep things a lot smaller and more agile. I’m going to take some time to do some freelance consulting, still in the maps, location and geo space of course; this industry continues to grow and innovate at an astounding rate, why would I want to work anywhere else?

For the first quarter of 2014 I’m going to be joining London’s Lokku, consulting for them as their Geotechnologist in Residence. Since 2006, Lokku have built up an impressive portfolio of geospatial and geotechnology assets under the lead of Ed Freyfogle and Javier Etxebeste, both alumni of Yahoo! like myself. Through the success of their Nestoria and Open Cage Data brands and the #geomob meetup, Lokku are in a great position to take their expertise in open geospatial data, OpenStreetMap data and open geospatial platforms to the next level. My role with Lokku will be to help them identify where that next level will be and what it will look like. It’s going to be a refreshing change to move from the world of a large corporate, with staff ID badges and ID numbers to a world where everyone fits into the same, albeit large, room and where everyone literally knows everyone else. So say I’m excited by this challenge would be a massive understatement. If you want to know more about Lokku, check out their blog, Twitter feed or come and say hello.

As for the rest of 2014 and beyond, it’s time to follow up on all those conversations that you tend to have about the next great thing in maps and location. Who knows precisely where 2014 will take me, but no matter where, it’s going to be geotastic and I can’t wait.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Big Arrows And Beacons; Navigating Across The United States By Plane In The Pre-GPS Era

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?

As a pilot you’d have a compass, an altimeter and maybe a map of the railway system to help you navigate and this is just what pilots did from 1918 when the U.S. Postal Service introduced the U.S. Air Mail system. But you needed one critical thing to help you navigate, one thing that wasn’t available 24 hours a day. You needed daylight.

In 1921, an experimental night flight was successfully completed using the clever solution of following bonfires along the length of the route between Chicago and North Platte in Nebraska. The bonfires were lit and tended by Postal Service employees and the occasional helpful farmer.


Having proved that a regular, day and night, postal service was possible, starting in 1923 a system of beacons were built across the United States. Each beacon was a 51 foot tall tower, one every 10 miles, with a massive rotating lamp on top that could be seen up to 40 miles away. Additional lights of differing colours pointed the two directions of the route and another light flashed out the beacon’s identifier, in Morse code.


All of which was essential during the hours of darkness, but to help during daylight hours, each beacon was built on top of, or alongside, a massive concrete arrow, 70 feet in length, painted bright yellow, that pointed out the direction to the next beacon.

In their heyday, almost 1,500 beacons were built between 1923 and 1933. This navigation system continued despite the invention of Low Frequency Radio Range navigation in 1929. The last beacon was supposed to be shut down as late as 1973 but some are still in use in Western Montana.

While the beacon towers themselves are mostly long gone, many of the concrete arrows still remain and can be seen clearly from the satellite imagery that we now expect to accompany today’s GPS driven digital maps. The arrows may lack their trademark yellow paint as age and weathering take their toll and in a lot of cases the next beacon that they pointed to has vanished under a new development.


There’s an oddly pleasing sense of continuity that a navigation aid from the pre-GPS era is still visible in the maps we now take for granted.

Air beacon courtesy of the United States Federal Aviation Administration, map imagery courtesy of Google Maps.
Written and posted from Harris+Hoole, King Street, Twickenham (51.44619, -0.32866)

Making Maps The Hard Way – From Memory

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.


Maps courtesy of BuzzFeed.
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King George III Was A Fellow Map Addict

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.

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

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.

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

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.

Gary's UK Lumia 820_20131120_008

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.

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Push Pins, Dots, Customisation, Brands And Services; The Three Waves Of Making Digital Maps

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.

Figure 1

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.

Figure 2

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.

With open sourced APIs such as OpenLayers and more recently the Cloudmade originated Leaflet, there was no branded map to start with. You had to make a choice and select a digital map tile provider in order to make your map. In contrast to the brand-less maps APIs, toolkits such as Mapstraction allowed you to abstract away the specifics of an individual mapping API. With this approach you can preserve your investment by using a single API. You can also move to another provider by changing as little as a single line of JavaScript code.

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.

Most of today’s modern browsers support both of the two competing implementations for vector graphics; the World Wide Web Consortium’s SVG and most recently, HTML5’s Canvas. As JavaScript APIs and toolkits spring up to take advantage of vector graphics, vector maps have started to appear. The New York Time’s Mike Bostock maintains D3.js and Adobe’s Dmitry Baranovskiy maintains Raphaël. Both of these are JavaScript libraries which allow you to visualise vector data and both of which support some form of maps.

Figure 3

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 takes away the bother of having to write JavaScript code to exercise a mapping API and instead allows you to simply upload your raw data and the MAAS of your choice will do the heavy lifting for you. An early exemplar of MAAS was Stamen’s Dotspotting, which whilst a simplistic ‘dots on maps’ implementation, allows a relatively sophisticated map visualisation to be produced with virtually no prior experience of working with geographical data sets or with maps. More recently CartoDB has taken the Dotspotting approach several steps further allowing extremely sophisticated mapping visualisations to be created, enabling these maps to be embedded in other web site and allowing access via an API. The latest entrant to making visualisation more accessible is Google Map Engine Lite, which builds on the heritage of Dotspotting and CartoDB.

Figure 4

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.

This article originally appeared in Volume 50 of the Cartographic Journal in May 2013.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)