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February 18th, 2014
How have our tools to map, monitor and understand the Earth evolved and aided understanding?

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The aligned technologies that image, model, map, and represent our world have continued to evolve, with great leaps forward in the past, but no greater technological leaps than we’re experiencing now. There’s a rich history of the pioneers that have invented the tools and techniques that continue to illuminate our measurement, monitoring, and understanding of our planet and our infrastructure.

The ongoing progression of technology for greater insight made its largest leap when computers weren’t yet a personal device that everyone has on their desk. Thanks to Moore’s law, we’ve progressed through mainframes where individuals had to book time to run their punch cards, to workstations and desktops, and now to mobile and cloud computing where the computing capacity is infinite. We’ve come a long way, and while innovation is accelerating we owe a great debt to the outlooks and advancements of the past.

Mystical Instruments

The Chinese are credited with creating the compass, but they used it first to make decisions and prophesies, based on its “mystical” properties. The device wasn’t immediately used for navigation, it was a window into the order of the universe for the Chinese concept of Feng Shui. That perspective is important for it builds on our primal need to make sense of the world around us in order to survive, but with an added impetus to improve upon haphazard human patterns, with dictates on what accepted forms are. The compass provided a window into an unknown force that consistently guides our direction. Beyond divining order, the compass enabled navigation bringing on the Age of Exploration with the discovery of whole new worlds.

We have progressed beyond the compass and aligned technologies that required plotting and calculations to an age where satellites combine to form Global Navigation Systems of Systems (GNSS) that provide instant location, direction, speed, and timing in our handheld devices. With this advancement, we navigate our world with easy voice commands, and we also gain a much greater understanding of location and the world around our locations. For perspective, GPS (the first GNSS) is only 25 years old, and the acknowledged “Father of GPS,” Brad Parkinson is still contributing.

Exploration and Discovery

The 15th Century was the last major leap in the advancements of mapmaking where the compass became widely used, along with the creation of the telescope, sextant, quadrant, and vernier scale. These tools came along at the same time as the printing press, tightly tying these technical advancements to their commercial prospects, because the press provided the means to sell maps to the masses.

Many great minds have taken up measurement and surveying, with several past U.S. presidents among past surveyors. Surveying and mapping are disciplines that mix mathematics and engineering, with an ability to record and communicate reality, along with a fieldwork element that provides a sense of adventure fueled by the desire for discovery. By mapping, we lock in and share understanding, and it’s no coincidence that our current technological explosion in terms of mapmaking and shared understanding coincide with the ubiquity of the Internet.

Aggregating to Understand

The aerial photography revolution began after World War II, with stereo cameras introduced and used in great number during the war, providing advantages of being able to model 3D topography and accurately measure distance. With this aerial data collection capacity came our next heightened ability to create paper maps, with aerial measurements fueling more mapping. But what to do with all these paper maps?

A young geographer working for a large aerial mapping firm became frustrated by the impossible task of aligning all these maps in order to provide a developing African country, without much of a budget, with an understanding of their natural resources. Roger Tomlinson hatched the idea that computers could do a much better job of this task by automating comparisons, and greatly improving the efficiency of aggregation and comparison, providing “Data for Decisions.” Sadly,  the “Father of GIS,” Roger Tomlinson has just recently passed away, leaving behind a strong legacy that mapping provides a gateway to much greater global understanding. Tomlinson lived to see the proliferation of GIS, and its continued evolution, prodding along the developers to continue to improve its impact.

We continue on the endless quest to measure and share our understanding of the world, to mark changes, and to seek to simplify the world’s complexity. With increasing measurement innovations such as LiDAR, and with systems that are moving beyond the old maps into three dimensions and even four dimensions to track change. All of these new advancements will lead to new discoveries, and it’s imperative to acknowledge those that led us here.

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