Mapping in the Cloud

Mapping in the Cloud


The evolution of the Internet and the World Wide Web has
significantly shaped the production and distribution of maps
worldwide. By Michael P. Peterson

Cartography, the art and science of making
and communicating with maps, has evolved
through the years to incorporate new tools and
methods of data acquisition and map presentation.
The discipline can trace its origins to Greek scholars
over 2000 years ago, with a history marked by a number
of intellectual accomplishments that have furthered our
understanding of the world and its representation. Beginning
in the early 1960s, the computer was used to make
maps. Initially, paper maps were ‘digitised’, literally converted
to numbers. Eventually, these digitised maps would
be distributed between computers through the Internet.
Along the way, new and related areas of study developed
including remote sensing — the use and analysis of imagery
taken by aircraft and satellites — and GIS — the
input, manipulation and analysis of geographic information
by computer. Today, cartography and these areas of study
are put under the umbrella of ‘geospatial technology.’ A
central activity in all areas of geospatial technology is the
making of maps.

The Internet is a global computer network linking computers
in different continents that are thousands of miles
apart. Its development was revolutionary for maps, similar
to the invention of printing. Maps were not duplicated in
mass until the mid-1400s. Before this, they were reproduced
by hand and very few existed. As a result of printing, more
people had access to maps and thus had a better understanding
of the world. Like printing, the Internet increased the
availability of maps, but the Internet moved a step further
and combined the printing and distribution in a single step.
One of the major benefits of this new age of mapping is that
maps could be made available to the user in a fraction of the
time required to distribute maps on paper.

World Wide Web and maps
Introduced in 1991, the World Wide Web (WWW) is a particular
protocol of the Internet conceived at the European
Particle Physics Laboratory (CERN). It was intended to
assist researchers in high-energy physics by linking related
documents. The developers wanted to create a seamless network
in which textual information on high-energy physics
from any source could be accessed in a simple and consistent
way. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide
Consortium (W3C), played a major role in designing
the system.

As originally conceived and implemented, the World
Wide Web
consisted only of text. Two university students in
the United States, Mark Andreesen and Eric Bina, working
at a supercomputer laboratory at the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign, recognised that the Web would have
limited acceptance as a text-only system. They added the
display of graphics, sound and video with the Mosaic web
browser introduced in March, 1993.

The www as re-invented by Andreesen and Bina fostered
a series of developments for the delivery of maps. Web
Mapping Services is sometimes narrowly defined as a set of
protocols that assist in the delivery of maps and the underlying
information. A somewhat broader interpretation is taken

here to include any web-based technology that assists with
the making or delivery of a map.

The online map is a product of the Web. Although maps
were distributed through the Internet before the introduction
of the World Wide Web, it was the Web that made it possible
for large numbers of people to access both static and interactive
maps. By the end of the 1990s, it was estimated that
200 million user-defined maps were distributed within Web
pages on a daily basis.

The client/server architecture is the major distributed
computing model. In this system, the clients’ request services
are provided by servers. The server may be viewed
as a dominant computer that is connected to several other
client computers with fewer resources. In this system, the
user’s client computer communicates with a server through
a specific protocol. Most often, the server resides in a data
centre that houses a cluster of computers that respond to user
requests. A client computer requests their services using the
Internet as the medium of communication.

It has been reported that, in the case of a natural disaster such as an earthquake, Google data centres in California have
contingencies to acquire diesel fuel by helicopter to continue operations

Distribute computing
The distributed model provides an open and flexible environment
in which a wide variety of client applications can
be distributed and used by large numbers of computing devices,
including mobile phones. Client/server computing
has already reshaped the way computers are used and is affecting
nearly every facet of our lives. Some predict that all
computer applications in the future will be in the cloud on
a system of distributed computers. An example is Google’s
GDocs, a series of online applications for the creation and
distribution of word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation
documents. Cloud-based environments such as Amazon
Web Services are another example of distributed computing.

Servers reside in data centres that are housed in specialised
buildings, usually without windows, that contain a large
number of computers. They require uninterrupted power
and diesel generators provide emergency backup in case of
a power failure. A lead-acid battery backup system is also
in place to power the computers until the generators are up
and running. It has been reported that, in the case of a natural
disaster such as an earthquake, Google data centres in
California have contingencies to acquire diesel fuel by helicopter
to continue operations. It would be difficult for any
individual to implement these types of backup contingencies
to maintain the operation of a server.

On-demand, Web maps began appearing soon after the
introduction of the Mosaic browser in 1993. Commissions of
the International Cartographic Association, including but not
limited to the Commission on Maps and the Internet, have
been furthering this new method of map distribution through
research, education and practical workshops. This work has
culminated in several books, including the most recently
published Mapping in the Cloud by Guilford Press.

Michael P. Peterson,
Chair, Publications Committee
International Cartographic Association