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Cartography in the age of location

Cybercartography, or the application of geographic information processing to analyse topics of interest for the society and display of such results in easily understandable cartographic forms, is the way forward

Maps and the process of mapping are central to societies all over the world. It has been suggested that the mapping instinct is inherent in the DNA of humans and Kate Harmon (2004) has gone as far as to suggest that “I map therefore I am”. Maps are much more than wayfinding devices and the process of mapping can take many forms only one of which is the traditional paper map. There are at least three functions which maps serve:

  • The map as a material artefact which is how most people think of maps
  • The map as a cognitive construct indicative of how people perceive the space in which they live and their place in that space
  • The map as a social construct including issues such as the power of maps in society as outlined by Brian Harley (Harley 1989) and others

The centrality of location to everyday life
In an earlier issue of Geospatial World, Stephen Lawler of Microsoft Bing Maps argued that “The ‘where’ dimension is one of the most natural, powerful, insightful and intuitive ways to explore the rapidly growing world of data and services.” (Lawler 2013) The advent of GPS has led not only to ubiquitous mapping from companies such as Google and Microsoft but also to an increasing number of location-based services. As the location strategy of the United Kingdom observes “everything happens somewhere” (Lawrence 2013). More people became aware of, and used, Google maps within a matter of weeks than had used GIS since its inception several decades ago and location-based products and, more importantly, location-based services continue to grow exponentially.

A recent market survey by the Boston Consulting Group (2012) has shown that the impact of geospatial services in the US economy is 15 to 20 times that of the dedicated geospatial industry. In 2011 the geospatial industry generated $73 billion in revenues and employed over 500,000 people. Geospatial services generated $1.6 trillion in revenue and employed 5.3 million workers or over 4% of the US workforce.

Left: The Frontline Health Atlas is an initiative of the Canadian Public Health Association to enable exploration of projects that address the social determinants of health in Canada. Right: Views from the North atlas is a collaborative project undertaken by the Inuit training programme Nunavut Sivuniksavut and Carleton University with contributions from the Library and Archives of Canada

A second survey conducted in 2012 by Oxera Consulting Ltd (2013) at the global level showed that geoinformation added $113 billion to the world economy in 2012, which made up to 0.2% of the world’s Gross National Product of $70 trillion.

Both studies also estimated that the economic impact of location and location-based services was growing at the rate of 30% per year. Added to this is the increasing social impact in terms of social networking and related activities as most cell phones and mobile devices have a location identifier built in. We are truly entering the ‘Age of Location’, where location permeates almost every aspect of daily life.

Maps & mapping in the age of location
The centrality of the more traditional map, albeit in interactive and online form, is evident in the use of the Ordnance Survey’s OS MasterMap in the United Kingdom. The Ordnance Survey website is replete with examples of cost savings in a whole variety of application fields underpinned by OS MasterMap. OS Master- Map consists of over 450 million geographical objects at a high level of detail and is updated every day, where an average over 10,000 changes are made (Lawrence 2013). It consists of a number of detailed layers: a topography layer; an integrated transport network layer; an address layer; an imaging layer; a sites layer; and in 2014, a fully operational networks-water layer will be added. OS MasterMap is used by governments, often in cooperation with the private sector, to underpin a wide range of applications to analyse and visualise data. One of the more recent examples is that of Blackpool Council, which is using OS MasterMap for highways and footway maintenance and estimates savings of over £100 million over 25 years. OS MasterMap is an interesting example of the utility of mapping in the Age of Location but for the full impact of maps and mapping to be realised, we must extend the dimensions of cartography both in technical and, in particular, conceptual terms and create new multidimensional maps and new mapping applications. Maps must become even more central to all aspects of society.

Tim Berners-Lee (2006-2009) has identified two major challenges for the future of the Web: The need to link datasets on disparate topic into a coherent whole; and the need to display the information in innovative new ways. New forms of cartography, and in particular, cybercartography, has the potential to meet both challenges.

From left: Inuit siku (sea ice) Atlas; the Cybercartographic Atlases of Antarctica; and the first map in the Cybercartographic Atlas of the Lake Huron Treaty Relationship Process

Cybercartography can be simply defined as the application of geographic information processing to the analysis of topics of interest to society and the display of the results in new cartographic forms that people can readily understand. It is multimedia, multisensory and interactive and is not a stand alone product like the traditional map but part of an information/ analytical package including both qualitative and quantitative information.

Cybercartography is underpinned by six central ideas:

  • People use all of their senses in learning. Consequently, cybercartography creates representations which allow them to do this through cybercartographic atlases.
  • People learn in different ways and prefer teaching and learning materials in different formats. Cybercartographic atlases provide people with a choice of learning styles or combinations of learning styles. The same information is presented in multiple formats.
  • Effective teaching and learning takes place best when individuals are actively involved and engaged. The multimedia and interactive approaches used in cybercartographic atlases facilitate this.
  • People need the power to create their own narratives, i.e. the social computing revolution. The Cybercartographic Atlas Framework provides a mechanism for doing this, which gives some structure and metadata indicating the quality and nature of the narratives that people create. The Framework is also open source and does not require special knowledge in order to create a narrative.
  • Many topics of interest to society are very complex. There is no simple ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to many questions such as global warming and climate change. To understand these complexities, different ontologies or narratives on the same topic should be presented in ways that people can easily understand without privileging one over the other. Cybercartographic atlases do this. Of particular importance is giving voices to local people. They can speak for themselves rather than having others speak for them.
  • There has been a shift from ‘map user’ to ‘map creator’, which establishes new forms of democratised teaching and learning. The Cybercartographic Atlas Framework helps to democratise mapping in new ways and provides a framework for Volunteered Geographic Information.

Cybercartographic atlases
The cybercartographic atlas is the main product of cybercartography. Cybercartography uses the map as an organising principle but tries to capture a wide range of information in a variety of formats only one of which is the map. A cybercartographic atlas is a metaphor for all kinds of quantitative and qualitative information linked by location. Cybercartographic atlases have been produced on a wide variety of topics from the Inuit use of sea ice to Canada’s trade with the United States.

Cybercartography combines the three functions which maps serve as outlined earlier — the map as a material artefact, the map as a cognitive construct, and the map as a social construct — and does so in new ways. It helps make maps central to the Age of Location. A fuller description of the issues discussed in this short article appears in Developments in the Theory and Practice of Cybercartography: Applications and Indigenous Mapping to be published by Elsevier in 2014.


  • Berners-Lee, T., (2006 last updated 2009). Notes on Design Issues and Linked Data. Http://www. w3.org/designissues/linked data.html (accessed October 10 , 2013).
  • Boston Consulting Group (2012). Putting the US Geospatial Services Industry on the Map. Report prepared for Google, Boston: Boston Consulting Group.
  • Harley, J.B. (1989). Deconstructing the Map. Cartographica 26 (2): 1-20.
  • Harmon, K. (2004). You are Here: Personal Geographies and Maps of the Imagination, New York: Princeton Academic Press.
  • Lawler, S. (2013). Where is the Future? The Future is “where”, Geospatial World, 06: 92-94.
  • Lawrence, V. (2013). The Ordnance survey Master- Map®. Keynote address to the International Conference on Geography and Environment, Mexico City, October.
  • Oxera Consulting Ltd. (2013). What is the Economic Impact of Geo Services? Prepared for Google, Oxford and Brussels: Oxera Consulting, 32 pages.
  • Taylor, D. R. Fraser (ed) and Lauriault, T.P. (associate ed) (2013 in press). Developments in the Theory and Practice of Cybercartography: Applications and Indigenous Mapping, Amsterdam: Elsevier.