Home Articles Cartography: Possibilities and issues in contemporary mapping

Cartography: Possibilities and issues in contemporary mapping

Prof. Dr. William Cartwright
Prof. Dr. William Cartwright
School of Mathematical and Geospatial Sciences
RMIT University, Australia
[email protected]

Web 2.0 offers the potential for providing geographic information in a collaborative, shared manner. For the cartographic community, this provides both opportunities and issues that need to be addressed if maps are to be produced with currency, accuracy and integrity

The maps we rely upon, use and draw are no longer just produced on paper. They are also produced on other media that complement printed paper maps. In a relatively recent move from paper to digital media for map publishing, maps did not just ‘move’ from the paper medium to the digital, but a whole paradigm shift occurred.

Cartography embraced new media or integrated media – CDROM, the Web and other computergenerated and delivered resources to deliver innovative (and interactive) multi-media packages as well as individual maps that were produced using digital methods and delivered via contemporary communication systems.

Recently, there has been another paradigm shift, this time leveraging on the powerful possibilities of Web 2.0, social software and relatively inexpensive consumer electronicsdelivered tools that can be geoenabled, mobile and incorporating media capture and generating tools. This has meant that the consumer can now be the data collector and map producer as well. This has changed the definition of what happens in cartographic production and information dissemination.

The advent of re-thinking how to create and distribute information in a Web 2.0 communications world has changed how the community thinks about information access and provision. The old model of formal – mainly governmental – collection, storage and publishing of geospatial information has changed into a less formal and more personal model, for some instances of geospatial information provision and map publishing.

Whilst Web 2.0, social software and consumer devices now provide a plethora of (geo) information exploration, measurement and recording devices, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed if maps are to be produced with currency, accuracy and integrity.

Until recently, maps were published on the Web by users/producers using a process called ‘mash-up’ with Web 2.0 and social software. Web 2.0 is the use of the Web by individuals and groups of individuals to provide and share information, including geographic information. It provides a new model for collaborating and publishing. Users are able to develop their own ‘marked-up’ maps by appending their overlay information as an additional layer of information, usually using the default symbology provided (usually map pins are employed), to self-publish their maps via the Web. Maps produced through the process of mash-ups include the amateur map producer. This map producer has access to powerful Web 2.0 delivered software and resources, empowering them with the ability to produce and deliver maps that are both professional and current. Geographic information and base maps can be sourced from conventional providers like Ordnance Survey which has developed an API called Openspace to provide free data for noncommercial experimentation and from non-conventional sources like Nokia Maps and OpenStreetmap, the organisation providing free data and maps that are produced by individuals who collaborate to provide a free geospatial resource. Maps produced in a matter of minutes using Google Maps allow the user to become the producer. However, there is a proviso that must be noted – without real cartographic expertise, awful, and in many cases, unusable maps can result. As with any mapping product, good design is essential and form should not follow function.

Web 2.0 can also be used to find and view geo-tagged images. For example, the Flickr personal image repository Web site provides the option to search for images according to their location. These geo-tags can be just a placename or the actual latitude and longitude of the location of the image. These images can also be liked to Google Maps, and the location of the maps viewed as icons on the map.

However, having Web 2.0 for the provision of maps and geographic information is not without a number of issues.

The use of Web 2.0 as a means for providing geographic information presents a set of problems for cartography. Some of the issues to be dealt with are listed below.

Who owns geospatial data? There has been a movement of data repositories from just government resources to private industry with companies like Google and Microsoft purchasing massive amounts of geospatial information. The model of data collection, storage and distribution has changed. Non-public organisations now control massive amounts of data and provide it, in many instances for free. But, will this continue to be the case? And, are users being provided for data now, with future access perhaps attracting a fee? Some uncertainty does exist with this private sector data model.

The integrity of data – who guarantees the quality /integrity of the product when non-cartographers make and distribute maps? When accessing geospatial information from public sector repositories, users are assured that the data has been properly collected, maintained and updated by responsible authorities. The government or quasi-government sources of information have been trusted as custodians of geographical information and the actual payment for this service comes from the public purse and from user payments and royalties. But how is the quality/integrity of data assured by commercial or collaborative data provision resources?


OpenStreetMap incorporates a number of quality checks in its data collection to delivery system. It actively encourages data collectors/ mark-up collaborators and users to check the quality of their data and to make changes if necessary (CloudMade, 2009). A quality statement from Google related to their maps could not be found at the time of writing. However, the title of a presentation by Google’s Ed Parsons at the 6th International Symposium on Spatial Data Quality in July 2009, “When Good Enough, is Good Enough: Data quality requirements of the geoweb”, indicates that Google is conscious about data quality issues and its maps.

Who maintains the product? Linked closely to the previous topic is the issue of data maintenance. We assume that traditional custodians of geographical data maintain their data to acceptable standards.

But, do the ‘new players’ in geospatial information provision also maintain their data to the same standards that the users of ‘traditional’ data repositories expect?

This issue also relates to map data users and their confidence in the data supplied or the map generated from non-traditional data repositories.


How to protect data from processes like data ‘scraping’ (where information is copied from published Web sites and then incorporated into other products)? Data ‘scraping’ is the process whereby a Web page source code is interrogated automatically and the data intended to generate screen or printer output is extracted and a new data file created. This completely bypasses the need to access databases directly and therefore altogether bypasses payment or authorisation by the data owner. Data is scraped from general Web sites of search engines. This obviously is of great concern to organisations and individuals who generate Web maps and do not wish to have their data copied in this way. Added to this problem is that of attribution.

If data can be scraped and another mapping product generated from this data, it would be possible for another product to be generated and published with no reference whatsoever to the original data source or provider.

How to work with volunteer organisations that provide free data and map services mapping (e.g. OpenStreetMap)? As discussed earlier, there are a number of social and collaborative organisations that make their data and maps available for free. Through a network of Webconnected amateurs and professionals, geographical data is collected, scripts marked-up with data attributes, data placed in repositories and maps published. These organisations can be viewed to be either competing or collaborating with traditional suppliers of geographical information.

Privacy intrusions – how to protect users of mobile mapping services from being tracked? With a massive growth in geotagged information and the ability to transmit and receive maps and geographical information via mobile Internet through the use of mobile telephones and wireless devices, the consumer electronics industry has developed enormously. The general public is now offered a plethora of devices and associated applications that are geolocated or referenced. Locationbased services (LBS) and ‘at location’ mapping, where maps are delivered where and when needed using wireless technology, have now become ubiquitous. But, there is a trade-off of information accessibility for privacy (Butler et al. 2005; Cartwright, 2007). As these devices, in many cases, are always on a service provider, they can continually track the user.

This issue is perhaps one of the sleeping problems of mobile geographical information services that might cause problems in the future and limit the success of maps delivered via this medium.

How to protect against unwanted individual citizen inclusion of their property or personal identity in products like Google StreetView? Another privacy problem has arisen with data capture for Google StreetView. When collecting imagery, not only inanimate objects like buildings are captured, but people in the street are also photographed. This has led to concerns about privacy and the unauthorised photographing of individuals. Contributors to the blog site Boing Boing were asked whether they would be concerned if the CIA were collecting such information in pubic places and would the public accept it? (Boing Boing, 2009).
v In some instances, individuals have contacted Google to request that their image or property be removed from the site. In response to the public’s concerns about privacy, Google StreetView has blurred the faces or people captured in its imagery, as well as other identifying items.

How do cartographers interface with big players from the computer industry and consumer electronics/ communications industry when their real focus is to use maps to leverage business? There are now new players in geospatial information provision whereby consumer electronics companies like Nokia have purchased mapping companies. As well as Google wanting to enhance its advertising potential and Microsoft its profile in computer software through Web presence, other players are also now part of the geospatial industry. For example, TomTom purchased TeleAtlas and Nokia acquired Navteq. The potential of enhancing consumer electronics with geographical information is now evident in advertising of these devices. As these companies do not have cartography as their main focus, there exists the need for the cartographic community to seek ways of collaborating.

How to educate the general public about “What is a good map” in an era of map publisher/user? When using the Web for map-publishing, quality was adjudged by speed of delivery, circulation figures and screen resolution. Quality was gauged by how the ‘rules’ of computers and communications systems were applied. Users were still seen as consumers, and not collaborators in geographical knowledge acquisition. The use of Web2.0 as a means for providing geographic information presents different problems for assuring quality. Problems might arise with a conglomerate product related to ‘self-constructed’ Web 2.0 products. For conventional cartographic products, these assurances are provided by cartography. A major issue if self-composed products are to be used with confidence might well be quality assurance. Therefore, methods would need to be developed for assuring quality with conglomerate products, assuring quality with user-produced products and the means for informing users about the source of conglomerate information resources.

How to include collaborative decision-making and collaborative problem solving using mapping products? By using data and information from the general public and by making digital information freely accessible via the Web, outcomes that would otherwise not happen can result. This concept of making data freely available for problem-solving or by ‘harvesting’ information from Web users has been termed ‘crowdsourcing.’ In an article in Wired magazine Howe (2006) outlined the phenomenon of “crowdsourcing.” He commented how the Web had changed where companies now outsource their contract work and how contract workers for certain work can be physically located anywhere, as long as they are connected to the Internet. He also noted how even outsourcing via the Internet had changed – from outsourcing to “crowdsourcing.” This type of methodology for problem-solving has been called “The wisdom of the crowds” by James Surowiecki (2004). He says: “Ask a crowd, rather than a pair, and the average is quite close to the truth.”

A mapping application developed at University College London’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) undertook a project that used crowdsourcing to map anti-social behaviour in East Anglia, UK (Crooks et al., 2009). The project wanted to map things like people’s perceptions on fear of household burglary, quality of local schools and who would people vote for (CASA, 2009). Researchers developed an application called MapTube, which combined the idea of YouTube and their software GMap Creator to produce thematic maps. A pilot study was undertaken to generate a “mood map” of the credit crunch for the United Kingdom. This was done with the UK’s BBC Radio 4 iPM show (Hudson-Smith et al., forthcoming).

Web 2.0 offers the potential for providing geographical information in a collaborative, shared manner. Already the impact of maps via Web 2.0 has been felt by the ever-growing number of maps being published as collaborative products via mash-ups.

For the cartographic community this provides both opportunities and issues that need to be addressed. The opportunities include the ability to include the amateur cartographer in the map production equation, so as to benefit from these members of the cartographic community who can contribute greatly to mapping endeavours. By sharing resources more effective procedures can result and the amount of geographical information available can be increased. But, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed if the potential of Web 2.0 is to be responsibly exploited. Some of these issues have been covered here. It is hoped that they might be further explored.