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December 13th, 2007What Does the Word ‘Map’ Mean to You?


Dec 13, 2007 1093 Views



Jeff Thurston — “For me, maps are representations of processes. They provide information and clues not only about what is happening and where, but those factors involved in their occurrence.”

Matt Ball — “A map is a powerful tool, and the age of digital representation of map data coupled with handheld navigation and tracking devices, add a geographic dimension to everything we do as we transact with our physical world.”


Here is a compiled list of definitions for the word ‘map’ from 1649-1996. The most commonly used terms are ‘representation’ and ‘earth’s surface’ and they become more specific and detailed for the last 25 years or so.

The International Cartographic Association (ICA) considers the map to be evolving, particularly with respect to internet maps. They are becoming more continuously represented and interactive in nature. The use of maps and mapping technologies in recent times has expanded. This exponential growth is occurring for numerous reasons. These include developments in web mapping software, wider adoption of broadband, convergence of location technologies, business activities and so on. The birth of virtual globes has significantly contributed toward spatial awareness and mapping for members of the general public.

The people at the Visual Geophysical Exploration Environment (VGEE) project have considered the possibilities of connecting technologies to learning strategies that incorporate basic physical properties. This is a strategy also employed in GIS modelling. It seeks to not only map an event or represent one, but it also attempts to understand the underlying processes that created it – to address the question of why it is happening to begin with. Location is nice, but understanding is better.

For me, maps are representations of processes. They provide information and clues not only about what is happening and where, but those factors involved in their occurrence. Based on the VGEE example, rivers follow fundamental principles: like water flows downhill and moves faster on steeper slopes. The phenomena of river flow will be impacted by processes such as evaporation, infiltration, rainfall, snowfall and so on. Accordingly, we can begin to see that while one type of map can locate a river and represent it for navigation, another type of map (with different information) can include other processes (factors/parameters). Some maps may be simple, others may be complex.

A map by its graphical nature is well suited for communication purposes. And 2D maps can be used to communicate differently than 3D or 4D maps. Everyone can look at a map and interpret it differently. One phenomenon that has surprised me while living in Europe 7 years now, is how Europeans see the geographical parts of Europe as having different locations.

Go ahead and ask a group of people over coffee to name those countries in Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western Europe, and I’ll bet 10 Euro of Matt Ball’s money that you get many different answers where people place the different countries. Is Germany in west, east or northern Europe? Using more of Matt’s money, let me ask, “where is Colorado” located within the US?

While I acknowledge that some maps may only be used to find a petrol station, it seems to me that really interesting, the most useful maps, cause viewer’s to understand processes and phenomena. They often create as many questions as they answer. They inform and educate as much as entertain. They cause one to wonder, to explore, to learn and to discover.

In geospatial terms, we all recognise the connection of GIS to mapping, but how often do we consider the production of CAD drawings as maps? Where is the line between a drawing and a map? Does content necessarily restrict the consideration of a graphic as a map? Indeed, in today’s Web 2.0 environment, the creator’s have grown in numbers – technology is available to many more people to create their own maps.

The degree to which a map is reused is important. It is the beacon, the ray of light hitting home, that a particular map connected with the user in some useful and valued way – and others too. I think the geospatial scientist community today needs to look more seriously at their definition of mapping and where they fit into the ‘map’ community. The average teenager with a GPS is a scientific contributor into today’s world and a raw input supplier to some of the world’s largest corporations, often directly impacting strategic decision making.

So when I am asked what the word map means to me, the long and the short of it is, “a map is a graphic representation that assists and guides me to understand events, processes and phenomena about places – that I can directly contribute to.”


Background Information: European Forest Fire Information System 4D Cities

Tapestry of Time

Multi-Scale European Soil Information System

Arctic Geobotanical Atlas

Cartographic Communication

A map is an abstract recording of reality that communicates information about our surroundings and the relationships between the elements in our surroundings. Its navigation properties help us find our way efficiently. In its traditional paper format, a map ranks with a book in its ability to capture knowledge in a compact and portable way. A map is also similar to paper money in its ability to capture value to convey property and ownership

A map is a powerful tool, and the age of digital representation of map data coupled with handheld navigation and tracking devices, add a geographic dimension to everything we do as we transact with our physical world.

Reference and Treasure

As an avid reader, maps that accompany books have been a fascination of mine since childhood. Whether the map is of real or imagined places, the use of maps by authors to convey a deeper understanding of places provides an alternative means of imagining. As books capture us and convey a story line, maps of the stories allow us to do our own rambling and imagining of place with reference points that bring greater meaning to the story.

Maps provide a critical function as reference works to understand news and stories. Putting information into geographic context helps relate information to our own experience and places us much closer to the action.

Maps that were created in the past are significant treasures both for their artistic merit and for their view into the thought and understanding of our ancestors. Maps provide a fascinating view of history and cultural and physical development. We can compare the perceived reality of the past with our own present knowledge to gain a greater understanding of historical time.

The Digital Map Difference Geographic information systems gave us the ability to layer details, transform map information and switch seamlessly between different presentations of mapped data to obtain the greatest insight. GIS turned the map from a communication tool into a decision making device.

The ability to view a number of different spatial information inputs onto a local view has allowed us to analyze and better understand our surroundings. The map database combines our spatial information such as weather, wildlife, natural resource, demographics, navigation, etc.

The ability to reference and relate information from myriad inputs adds much greater power to the information rather than the presentation of the information. Knowing that we can review mapped information, update it quickly and easily and present it in the ways of our choosing, puts less emphasis on the creation of a map product.

Maps Are Increasingly Active

As technology has advanced it has increased our ability to travel more quickly, view from higher vantage points, and capture and display map information more accurately and completely. The incorporation of tracking and sensing technologies give life to maps and provide a living view that

A recent talk that I attended discussed the word “building” as both a noun and a verb. The word “map” is both a noun and a verb much in the same way. As a noun, a map is a physical representation and presentation. As a verb the spatial data is obtained through the act of mapping. Increasingly our maps are created and obtained with less human involvement as sensors and other actors create input that can be mapped for an informational map dashboard in close to real time.

As technologies advance, the verb of mapping will likely become more collaborative and much less static. Maps that are constantly in a state of update will communicate increasing amounts of information in channels that are specific to the user’s purpose.

Geographic exploration systems have given us a new means to display and view our geographic information. These products and other technical developments have provided a surge of interest in mapping and map data. A widening audience is becoming interested in viewing maps and map data and creating their own maps and adding their input to map data.

Virtual Realities There are a number of advancements that allow us to display our map data in a more realistic fashion. The surge of three dimensional representations provides better context for information and allows us to view and visit areas virtually prior to actual travel.

The ability to map accurately and completely is on a continuing upward spiral. We now have the ability to collect and represent our data in three dimensions with increasing accuracy. We’ll start to unlock more meaning from our mapped data as this realism reveals details about the relationships within our physical world.

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References Harley, J.B. 1989. Deconstructing the Map . Cartographica 26(2), pp. 1-20.