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Cybercartography is charting a new route

Cybercartography is a holistic and dynamic concept which continues to develop in an iterative fashion through the interaction of both theory and practice. It has relationships to other developments in both cartography and geography, especially critical cartography, participatory mapping, neogeography, volunteered geographic information and others and incorporates many of the technologies of GIS. Cybercartography pre-dates some of these but includes elements of all these approaches. It is the holistic nature of cybercartography which helps to set it apart, together with an approach to content creation that emphasises community involvement and trans-disciplinary teamwork. Cybercartography is designed to facilitate “development from below”. The technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The concept of cybercartography was introduced in a keynote address I delivered at the International Cartographic Conference in Stockholm in 1997. In 2003, a formal definition was given as “… the organisation, presentation, analysis and communication of spatially referenced information on a wide range of topics of interest and use to society in an interactive, dynamic, multimedia, multi-sensory format with the use of multimedia and multimodal interfaces.” (Taylor 2003). At the core of cybercartography are seven key elements and six central concepts:


  • Is multisensory using vision, hearing, touch and eventually smell and taste.
  • Uses multimedia formats and new telecommunications technologies like the World Wide Web including mobile devices
  • Is highly interactive and engages the user in new ways — user-centric and interactive, understanding and engaging the user in new ways through user needs analysis and usability studies, Wiki atlases and “edutainment” (online educational games). Cybercartographic “users” are increasingly becoming “creators” or “prosumers”.
  • Is not a stand-alone product like the traditional map but part of an information/analytical package including both qualitative and quantitative information. The Cybercartographic Atlas Framework provides an organisational approach for the emerging products and processes of the Web 2.0/3.0 era of social computing.
  • Is compiled by teams of individuals from different domains including disciplines not normally associated with cartography.
  • Applied to a wide range of topics, not only to location finding and the physical environment. Responds to societal demands including topics not usually “mapped”.
  • Involves new research and development partnerships among academia, government, civil society and the private sector.

The six central concepts are:

  • 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 a choice of learning styles or combinations of learning styles. The same information is presented in multiple formats.
  • Effective teaching and learning takes place when individuals are involved. Multimedia and interactive approaches used in cybercartographic atlases facilitate this.
  • People need power to create own narratives, i.e. the social computing revolution. The Cybercartographic Atlas Framework provides a mechanism for this, which gives some structure and metadata indicating the quality and nature of the narratives that people create. The Framework is open source and does not require special knowledge 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, different ontologies or narratives 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.

The interaction between practice and theory is central to the future of cybercartography and new applications lead to both new technology and new theoretical understanding. We have a special interest in indigenous and traditional knowledge and in the creation of cybercartographic atlases with northern and First Nations peoples in Canada.

This has taken us into new theoretical and applied directions, which are illustrated in the cybercartographic atlases such as the Atlas of Arctic Bay, the Inuit Siku (sea ice) Atlas and the Kitkmeot Place Names Atlas (https://gcrc.carleton.ca). The work with indigenous people has led to new challenges and opportunities. We have had to consider the legal and ethical issues involved in portraying indigenous knowledge in digital form and the concrete discussion of ownership, copyright, consent, liability and intellectual property in digital mapping is a very important one.

The technological challenges have led to the development of a completely new framework for our atlases which we call the “Nunaliit Cybercartographic Framework”. Nunaliit means community in Inuktituk. This is a document-oriented database allowing the input of a wide variety of information objects.

Rather than develop a fixed schema in advance, we build the database on what type of information the community wants to include and extend it as needed. This is a technological reflection of the philosophy that these atlases are primarily driven “from below” rather than “from above”. We also facilitate the telling of stories, or “geonarratives”, which is essential in a predominately oral society.

In content terms, the communities are creating things of interest to them which are often unanticipated. For example, the youth in Arctic Bay created a rap video which they call “I am not an Eskimo”! Education is now a key application of our atlases and they are being used both in formal and the informal education system, including the development of new courses at Nunavut Arctic College to help make Inuit active research participants, not passive subjects of research by others.

Tim Berners-Lee, in discussing the future of the Web, identified two major challenges: linking datasets on disparate topics and displaying new information created in innovative ways. The future of cybercartography lies in responding to these challenges and we are doing so in our work with communities in Canada’s north.