One Map to Rule Them All

By: Frank, September 17, 2005

Maps are cool. Geographers have known this for years. The rest of the world is just figuring this out. Stuff has a spatial relationship to other stuff and we can easily show what it is – with a map! Luckily there has been an explosion in online map making tools in the last year. No headline here – online mapping is hot. Hotter than hot. Everybody and their brother is putting out an online map now. We have maps for subways, for byways, for houses, for apartments, for looking for love in all the wrong places, for pictures, for pictures of looking for love in all the wrong places… You can hardly swing your web browser around without hitting a map these days.

For all their coolness, the downside to maps is that they have to be accurate to be of any use. Sure, pictures are worth a thousand words, but you want to make sure you’re saying the right ones. Otherwise we’re just talking about a picture with some lines and photos and stuff, and that’s art. The cold hard truth is that, with the exception of certain places on the planet, most of our current online maps aren’t that great – either because the data they’re based upon is inaccurate or the tools they used to make’em are entirely too difficult to use.

Data is a tricky subject. People more knowledgeable than I am spend their entire careers on the stuff (God love’em, someone has to). What we do know about data is that normally the people with the best view are usually closer to the ground. Think about it – you probably know more about where your garage is than the mayor of your town. The mayor knows better than your governor and he knows better than your US Senator. We also know that data is useless sitting around. You have to be able to DO something with it to make it worthwhile. The toolset matters – if the tools aren’t robust enough or they’re too complicated, you can’t make the maps you want to make.

Right now, the world of online maps is dominated by two major groups – your data people and your tool people. Data people are focusing on getting the best data from the best sources and serving it up to the public. Tool people are trying to make the best tools to get the maps produced. Data people and tool people talk together about as much as mountain lions and cruise directors do…. Which is to say not at all.

What needs to happen is the tool people and the data people need to go have a group luau or something. They need to go get good and sloshed together, just kick back and have a good old time. Then, in the morning, they need to sit down and figure out how to get their approaches to making maps work together. Good tools need to sit on good data. Distributed data systems can feed good cartographic tools to make great online maps. On top of that, those tools don’t have to be complicated and difficult to work with.

As hot as online maps are right now, they’ll be kicked up twenty or so notches when these two groups can get together. An accurate, locally stewarded data source driving robust simple tools could become a development platform for so much more than just maps. That’s when it will be time to get excited.