Thursday, 4 September 2008

Maps old and new

I've just written a piece for in-flight magazine Velocity on the way digital mapping is affecting our view of the city. It's interesting - because we can now map in real time, so we can map flows, not just stasis.

That means we can now map, for instance, San Francisco's nightlife - where is everyone going? We can map the city as the sum of its citizens' movements, creating a picture like a long exposure photo of car light trails.

And it may mean  that maps are becoming more specialised. More useful if you are interested in a particular thing  - but perhaps less generally useful. That reflects some of the comments I've heard in media circles about how media are becoming more specialised,  more targeted, and there are fewer and fewer media providing a common agora and common content for everyone. Society is pulling apart, becoming fragmented, and we see that in digital maps as well as in the media.

There's an eloquent piece about maps in the San Francisco Chronicle. I'm not an apologist for ink-on-paper - I was one of the early web heads, on the internet in the days when Compuserve gave you email addresses like (I can still remember mine!), CSS hadn't been invented, and there were no graphics on web pages. But what's alarming is that although digital mapping can do so much, the real repositories of geographical knowledge (Ordnance Survey, the IGN in France) haven't made the transition to digital - and digital mappers aren't producing high quality. Googlemaps is great for navigating a housing estate - and rubbish at showing you trig points or contour lines.

John Flinn points out that the Ordnance Survey map is a repository not just of geographical information, but of history. Barns, village names, field boundaries, different types of woodland reflecting different styles of forestry development, Roman roads and deserted medieval villages. Read a good map and you'll find yourself travelling in time as well as space. (And I had one OS map that really was a Tardis. It was bigger on the inside than the outside, and once unfolded, I could never, ever get it folded back into its cardboard spine...)

I'd love to see some digital mappers incorporating this kind of historical information into their work. In fact, you could quite easily create something like one of my very favourite maps, a marvellous and very detailed map of Roman Britain . Even better, with digital, you could roll over from Roman to early medieval Britain and watch the changes in population distribution,  while seeing the continuity of many of the trade routes over time...

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