A conversation that took place at the industry’s largest geospatial gathering this summer is hard to erase from memory. There, a long-time industry veteran who is well respected to the point of holding office in a major industry association and giving many keynote addresses at regional events made a statement along the lines of, “we need to get over ourselves.”
This individual described how his millennial teens navigate with today’s tools and scoff that maps and mapping require any skill. They know nothing of all the work that has gone into creating this seamless access to maps vial multiple technologies, and would have a hard time grasping the need for precision and accuracy because they can guide themselves with a variety of tools. While there’s some truth behind this attitude, there is also a right to feel pride and accomplishment for a lifetime pursuit of mapmaking.
We all want others to believe that the job that we do requires a degree of skill, and admittedly we may exaggerate the difficulty. For so many years there were considerable barriers to digital mapmaking. Our software required specialized machines, we needed both artistic as well as computer coding skills, and we understood such hard to spell words as photogrammetry and mensuration. We would divide into camps of rasters and vectors, and scoff at those that didn’t hold our own views.
Now, the average citizen has a variety of maps at their fingertips, there’s the world’s greatest crowdsourcing effort that has made even grannies into mapmakers, and we carry around a number of apps that guide our way or map our preferences. We can still write unique papers on difficult geostatistical problems and methods, and there is a legitimate pursuit of GI Science, but the widespread mainstreaming of mapping has made it harder to make an ivory tower existence out of mapping alone.
There’s a subtle transition taking place that moves away from directing users along a rigid path of technological do’s and don’ts and more toward guidance with much of the painful parts of mapmaking behind us. Today’s fresh recruits rightly balk at years of database maintenance and tedious data formatting routines when they’d rather be setting up sensors or sending up a UAS or balloon to collect fresh data of their subject area.
The duller aspects of mapmaking are understandably pushing people away when the consumer tools, open source access, and democratizing forces at work have made them excited about what they can do. Users can create fresh maps or 3D constructed realities so quickly these days that the nuances of data collection can be lost on them. The trick is always in the adoption and assimilation of these new tools in order to freshen our maps and make them more inclusive and collaborative without disrupting.
While these teens know infallible maps, and there are increasingly inspiring examples of cities and states that have made many inroads in their operations through mapping, there are also so many organizations that have failed to adequately map their assets. How many times have you heard of a municipality or utility that would be embarrassed to share their geospatial data for fear that others would discover how bad it actually is?
The truth is that systematic and consistent mapmaking is difficult without a fine-tuned check and balance on cartographic quality and teams of mapmakers that follow the same protocols and share the same rigor in their work. Mapmaking is also an endless pursuit, and the likes of Google and Here understand this well with their fleets of cars and ever-evolving sensor sets that ply our roads and make these consumer maps so successful.
Seeing a recent headline that the city of Chennai is undertaking their fourth attempt to map their city in 3D isn’t such a surprise given the difficulty of the task. The frenzied pace of change in much of the world is like a patient that won’t sit still for an examination. We must map with all the tools at our disposal, from the air, the ground, and our phones to get a handle on urbanization and to connect citizens to services to improve our existence.
The teen’s take had visibly shaken this person, and to a degree these teens are right about a more accessible toolset that requires less training and technological knowhow. Yet, so much more mapping needs to be done, and so much more map analysis needs to happen in order to make increasing sense of the world around us. The difficulty in this generation gap is to remain humble and to learn as well as teach as we all assimilate the possibilities of today’s technologies.