Last edited 02 Dec 2021

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Digital mapping and cartography


[edit] Historic cartography

New digital technologies in mapping are a threat to traditional cartography and the future importance and understanding of maps.

Cartography is the art, method or exercise of accumulating or drawing maps. Maps are more than a tool for getting from one place to another; they can be filled with creative and subjective meaning, "...At every instant, there is more than the eye can see, more than the ear can hear, a setting or a view waiting to be explored. Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequence of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences” (Lynch, 1992, p1).

By considering the role of mapping in early modern society and the relationships between maps and colonialism we can find underlying tones that offer clues to what a specific place was like at a point in history. These maps may carry bias, but they give a deep overview of the places they represent, portraying character and insight into hierarchical life.

For example, in Mercator’s projection of 1569 we see a number of biases that represent the British Empire in a positive and powerful light:

  • Greenland is the same size as Africa (Africa is actually 14 times bigger).
  • Europe is the same size as South America (South America is actually twice the size)
  • Europe is placed in the centre and the equator line is 2/3rds of the way down the map.

As long as these maps are looked at with a knowledge of the surrounding context they can lead us to a great wealth of historical research and give an understanding on how an idea can be depicted by a carefully considered map.

[edit] Digital mapping

Today Cartography is in the process of being re imagined both as an art form and in projects that use digital technologies for web mapping. In 1993, the Xerox PARC Map Viewer was released, allowing interactive mapping retrieval via the World Wide Web, moving beyond the accessing of fixed information. It was soon followed by earthquake locating maps, online atlases, geographical databases and address search engines.

Between 2004 and 2006, the likes of Open Street map, Google maps and Google earth surfaced; introducing easy to use maps and aerial views; and exposing the world to a pivotal point in the long history of cartography.

Online mapping, set to takeover as the preferred type of mapping, can be seen as a threat to the long tradition of cartography.

[edit] Negative Impacts of Digital Technologies on Cartography

“As a result of public reliance on digital navigation systems, traditional cartography jobs are being downsized, and in many cases eliminated” (Mahaney, 2010).

Traditional cartographers have often worked as designers in terms of their vision for a city or place (for example Lucio Costa’s plans for Brasilia). Historically it has been the cartographers’ role to have the grand vision for what a place should be like. The skills involved in cartography are in some ways similar to those of architecture and planning, in terms of vision and creative thinking. Traditionally maps are created to imply, to question and to provide a rough guide of possible rules; they are a possibility.

Digital technologies do not always recognise the importance of this historical framework. “A portrait, a city map, is thus at once the trace of a residual past and the structure of a future to be produced” (Marlin, 2001, p205) “The more we know about cultures, about the structure of society in various periods of history in different parts of the world, the better we are able to read their built environment” (Kostof, 1999, p2).

If Rome’s online map is analysed, the map appears flat, there is no indication of its geographical position in terms of its seven hills, what is old or new, what is roman built and what is not, how a person navigates through Rome and so on. Compare this to the 1748 Nolli Map of Rome, in which Giambattista Nolli shows differentiation between public and private areas; private regions are solid while public are hollow. Revealing the interior public spaces is particularly relevant when considering the publicity and vast number of churches within Rome.

In the book ‘Invisible Cities’ Italo Calvino writes “Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little” (Calvino, 2009, p130). He contemplates the merging of cultures, due to an increased exposure to one another through means of technology, and the potential of all city images, and maps, eventually appearing the same.

Parsons suggests that “A strong preference to aerial views, over actual maps, on sites such as Google maps and Bing maps is an area of growing concern in terms of a younger generations map literacy” (Parsons, 2010). With a focus on aerial maps the roof not only becomes the 5th elevation, as Mies van der Rohe suggested, but the most important elevation, we must question why this elevation should overshadow and have more power than all the others, when historically the map has always represented the buildings footprint showing us the relation between the building and its surroundings.

By using a map of roofscapes the ease of navigation through the city is made more difficult. The aerial views give little indication of contours in an urban environment, and an understanding of scale is lost. The fact that the aerial view is a photo, often leads to a false sense of security in terms of its accuracy, this information despite its appearance, like any map, needs to be checked for error.

Klien suggests that “Maps have served a broad range of divergent interests: they are items at once highly practical, eminently political and overtly symbolic; and just as the early modern discourse of geography was both a scholarly pursuit and a commercial activity, they are records of a significant increase in spatial knowledge as well as valuable economic objects in their own right” (Klien, 2001, p64)

Digital technologies reduce maps to a basic layer of understanding, losing creative and subjective meaning. This basic level generally tends to focus on roads. Historically the map represents the people of a place, giving hints of culture, society and attitude to space. A hierarchy of importance in spaces found on a map may be implied, suggesting places that should be respected or visited. Thought should be given to the positive aspects of bias in maps and the way clues are given to the past.

Taking a look at the introduction of the satire maps of the 1870’s, in the context of political tension, the rise of nationalism and the need and defence of a nations identity, the rise of the ordinance survey map, the publication of the atlas and much proclaiming of the British empire, these satire maps were designed as a response, to inform, entertain and shock by combining current issues with the familiarity of a maps shape. This can be seen in ‘The Serio Comic Map of Europe at War’ by Fred Rose, he uses human and animal features to represent the threat of each country to the next, these ideas are important in the development of our understanding of symbology.

Peter Brookes, a current political cartoonist for The Times creates similar works. In his ‘Good Friday Agreement the IRA Version’ he shows the Good Friday Agreement with an Ireland shaped hole burned out of it, accompanied with bullet holes, a reaction to two British soldiers being killed. In his Spectator cover for ‘Yobland, our Yobland’ he represents Ireland as the old lady that Britain is kicking. These forms of cartoons are important, although primarily for entertainment value, they convey a powerful message.

Even with digital mapping it must be recognised that “behind the mapmaker lies a set of power relations, creating its own specification” (Harley, 2001, p63). In heavily controlled countries such as North Korea and China this attitude towards the map may still be occurring. North Korea is a blank canvas, the only pinpoint is the countries capital. Similarly China has heavy control over the Internet and control of public opinion. The government keeps its prisons hidden out of sight, generally low rise and away from the cities.

These empty spaces are not just apparent in maps; they result in coherent gaps in our knowledge of a place. They are reminiscent of ‘William Morgan’s Map of London’, made in 1682, after the great fire of London in 1666. It is an image of the new city, an idealised vision containing pride and promise, it was the first time London had been accurately surveyed, it contains no disorder, no prisons (even though it is known Newgate existed at this time), no work houses, and no overcrowding or poverty, perhaps the deer in St. James’ Park, the reality of which was a slum, are the ultimate representation of this idealised vision.

In the 1800’s Charles Booth rebelled against this form of mapping by creating his ‘London Poverty Map’ in which he accurately surveyed unacceptable living conditions, workhouses and wages; revealing a third of London’s population was living in poverty.

[edit] Positive Impacts of Digital Technologies on Cartography

“Mercator placed Europe in the centre of his map” (Black, 1997, p30), “the atlases of Ortelius and Mercator, the maps of Nowell, Saxton and Speed were all produced within a recognisably English frame of reference; their cartographic activity bears directly on the international perception of national space in early modern England” (Klien, 2001, p82).

In the case of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, Jerusalem was centred as the religious centre, Ortelius, Mercator, Nowell, Saxton and Speed focused on the centre of the British Empire as a representation of power.

Online maps fight previous historical bias, they are created by everyone, for everyone, each person is at the centre of their own map.

Digital technologies have enabled areas that have never been mapped in detail to be mapped by the people that live there, such as Nairobi, Kenya. “We must consider not just the city as a thing itself, but the city being perceived by its inhabitants” (Lynch, 1992, p3) to portray a truer image of the city. “Every citizen has had long associations with some part of the city and his image is soaked in memories and meanings” (Lynch, 1992, p1).

Kevin lynch published ‘The Image of the City’ in 1960, he almost predicts the invention of online mapping with his discussions on personal perspective, movement and the memory with which information is gathered. An ideal example of a personal map is seen in ‘The Image of the City’ (Lynch, 1992, front cover) showing what is important to that particular person. Conceptual consideration must be given to how maps work in the human mind. If landmarks are a form of navigation like in Rome, is this how a place should be represented? Like Lynch discusses, the city is made of paths, edges, districts, nodes, landmarks and this is what our city image is made up of.

“Within days of the disaster, Haiti's only golf course – and a rare pocket of wealth in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere – had been filled with makeshift tents that became home to an estimated 55,000 people. The transformation of Pétionville was documented thoroughly on Google Maps” (Kiss, 2011, p12).

It allowed aid organisations to work quickly, to pinpoint collapsed buildings and camps and act almost immediately, in terms of clearing, rebuilding, supporting the injured and supplying food and water. A month after Haiti’s disaster an earthquake struck Chile killing over 500 people. The disaster mapping technique used previously in Haiti was refined, facilitating an even quicker reaction.

Maps are no longer static but dynamic, changed in real time by millions of users and offered to us free of charge by the likes of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo or, the collaborative global map made for the people by the people” (Keegan, 2010, p18).

[edit] Conclusion

Cartography can be seen as art, method and exercise. Within the field of online mapping we see only the exercise. The map needs to understand cultural background and context, along with a historical framework of a place, essentially the method of how it came to be. The creative and subjective meaning that is seen as the art, is also lost.

Exposure to these types of meanings are important when considering the potential of biases and the joy of debate and question that can come from them. The overpowering of the aerial view clouds the ability to walk through the city, and leaves us naively unaware of the places in our map that we no little about.

Wherever we are the map places us at the centre, it disregards what having a centre to a map can tell us about how the world has changed.

Online mapping can give a truer image of place, by allowing anyone to add to the map, but direction is lost in the mundane method of representation.

As it stands, new technologies in mapping threaten the tradition of cartography and the future importance and understanding of maps, but with the underlying intentions of online mapping and the personal expression of artists like Peter Brookes and Grayson Perry the potential for hybrid mapping to work across these two forms is a real possibility.

This article was created by: --LMK 23:00, 13 December 2012 (UTC)

[edit] Related articles on Designing Buildings

[edit] External References

  • Black, J (1997) Maps and Politics, United States of America: Reakiton Books.
  • Calvino, I (1974) Invisible Cities, London: Vintage Classics.
  • Harley, J.B. (2001) The New Nature of Maps, Essays in the History of Cartography, United States of America: The John Hopkins University Press.
  • Kegan, V (2010) 'We no longer go to maps they come to us', The Guardian, 11th September, p. 18.
  • Kiss, J (2011) 'Haiti earthquake: how Google helped save lives', The Guardian, 12th January, p. 12.
  • Klein, B (2001) Maps and the writing of Space in Early Modern England and Ireland, United Kingdom: Palgrave.
  • Kostof, S (1999) The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History, United Kingdom: Thames & Hudson.
  • Lynch, K (1960) The Image of the City, United States of America: The MIT Press.
  • Mahaney, E (2010) Future of Paper Maps: What is the Future of Paper Maps?, Available at: (Accessed: 2nd January 2012).
  • Marlin, L (2001) On Representation, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Orwell, G (1974) 1984, London : Secker and Warburg.
  • Parsons, E (2010) 'The New Mapping Revolution ', British Library Podcast, 7th September.
  • Buisseret, D (1998) Envisioning the City: Six Studies in Urban Cartography, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bricker, C (1969) A History of Cartography: 2500 Years of Maps and Mapmakers, London: Thames & Hudson.
  • Koolhaas, R (1994) Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, United States of America: Monacelli Press.
  • Rowe, C (1978) Collage City, United States of America: The MIT Press.
  • Thrower, N (1996) Maps and Civilization: Cartography in Culture and Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


This reference may give further insights about cartography:

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