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November 11th, 2014
Will we recognize the meaning of the word ‘map’ in the years to come?

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Historically, a map is an abstract recording of reality that communicates information about our surroundings and the relationships of things to place. It incorporates direction and scale to allow us to navigate. In its traditional paper format, a map ranks with a book in its ability to capture knowledge in a compact and portable way. A map is also similar to paper money in its ability to capture and convey value as in defining property and assigning ownership.

The age of digital representation of map data coupled with handheld navigation and tracking devices add a geographic dimension to everything we do as we transact with our physical world. There’s a radical change taking place now with ubiquitous connectivity and a blurring of the interface between devices. Maps have been timeless and recognizable from our early scratching in the sand, but their static nature is in peril.

The Digital Map Difference

Geographic information systems gave us the ability to layer details, transform map information and switch seamlessly between different presentations of mapped data to obtain the greatest insight. GIS turned the map from a communication tool into a decision making device.

The ability to view a number of different spatial information inputs onto a local view has allowed us to analyze and better understand our surroundings. The map database combines our spatial information such as weather, wildlife, natural resource, demographics, logistics, etc.

The ability to reference and relate information from myriad inputs adds much greater power to the information beyond just the presentation of location. Knowing that we can review mapped information, update it quickly and easily and present it in the ways of our choosing, puts less emphasis on the creation of a map product and more importance on proximity and relationship.

Increasingly Active Maps

As technology has advanced it has increased our ability to travel more quickly, view from higher vantage points, and capture and display map information more accurately and completely. The incorporation of tracking and sensing technologies give life to maps and provide a living view that becomes a new kind of map.

The word “map” is both a noun and a verb much in the same way as the word “building”. As a noun, a map is a physical representation and presentation. As a verb the spatial data is obtained through the act of mapping. Increasingly our maps are created and obtained with less human involvement as sensors and other actors create input that can be mapped for an informational map dashboard in close to real time.

Geographic exploration systems have given us a new means to display and view our geographic information. These products and other technical developments have provided a surge of interest in mapping and map data. A widening audience is becoming interested in viewing maps and map data and creating their own maps and adding their input to map data.

Reality at All Scales

There are a number of advancements that allow us to display our map data in a more realistic fashion. The surge of three dimensional representations provides better context for information and allows us to view and visit areas virtually prior to actual travel.

The ability to map accurately and completely is continually improving as we add to our inputs. As the number of Earth observing platforms proliferate from drones to satellites, we’re gaining a much more complete picture of our planet on a daily basis, from the broad patterns of drought and flood down to the movements of insects or the health of an individual grape. As scale matters less, because we can collect and represent at whatever level of detail you’d like, we lose some of our understanding of what a map is. Rather than representation, we’re more interested in visualization and analysis.

In addition to more timely and precise information, we’re also getting into immersive map realities. This realism, and our ability to step into it, reveals details about the relationships within our physical world. Navigating these immersive worlds will profoundly impact our perception of reality and the increasingly mind-bending capacity of our maps will alter our understanding of the meaning of a map.

As technologies advance, mapping as a verb will become more collaborative and much less static. Maps that are constantly in a state of update will communicate increasing amounts of information in channels that are specific to the user’s goal or purpose.

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