Brief comments on Cartography
Mankind has been creating maps since the dawn of history. Great civilizations have used maps to describe graphically and symbolically space, and it has been one of the oldest forms of communication and data storage. They are artefacts that interweave art, science, ideology and identity and are indicators of culture and capability of abstract thinking. Maps have been the medium of choice to transmit information about space and, as such, their importance transcends their value as mere objects. As a symbolical representation of outside world that can be decoded by our brains, maps inform us the about relationships and patterns that arise from the interaction between geography and humanity and thus enhance our comprehension and awareness of our surroundings.
A variety of different materials have been used to make maps, from stone to metals, parchment to paper. The word map comes from the Latin mappa, or cloth. The creation of the printing press in the fifteenth century allowed maps to be reproduced identically, bypassing mistakes, and cheaply. It was an enormous revolution in the dissemination of cartography and of the mental awareness that maps foster. From rare items made for a lucky few, maps were now accessible to a wider share of European population.
With the digital revolution of our times, these trends have increased a thousand fold. Cartography has entered a radically new phase. Maps are now available to everyone at any time for free. Whereas once the product of great individual efforts whose maps were copied and used of centuries, such as Ptolemy and Mercator, nowadays maps are being created by millions of amateurs in joint effort projects. The map producers are also direct consumers and the enormous amount of data contained in them nowadays is made possible with new technology.The revolutionary paradigm shift brought about by our digital age has given birth to new concepts and issues in the art of map making, so much so that some are calling it Neocartography.
Open Street Map – Mapping Revolution
Open Street Map (OSM) is a collaborative project that falls into the category of Neocartography. It was created in 2004 by Steve Coast in the UK and has nowadays 1.6 million registered users. It uses the Open Data Base License which allows the registered users to freely edit, share and use the database and guaranteeing the extension of this freedom to all. I am one of the registered users and I will henceforth summarize my experience with this cartographical digital tool. I observed that OSM uses the Mercator Projection map instead of the Peter`s projection (more reliable to represent area mass), and as a result Greenland is about the size of Africa or South America.
OSM allows the cartographer (you and me) to contribute to the creation of a world map by actively mapping out areas of the globe. It supplies the data to work with (as for example satellite images and the rough outline of the area) and also gives the user the tools to draw the map. I used Potlatch, one of the editing tools available, which is embedded into the website. The freedom it allows for anyone to freely help create a world map is in a sense a democratic revolution, one unique in the history of cartography. As mentioned above, maps historically have been the product of great individual cartographers such as Ptolemy or Mercator. In addition, expensive artefacts as they were, maps were commissioned by the State or by powerful private enterprises, who could extend the privilege to professionals (i.e. seamen) or fund scientists (i.e. universities) as they saw fit. This status quo stood remained unshaken until the revolution the digital age sweep all away like a tsunami. The concept that amateurs can help create world maps through crowdsourced projects, away from the influence and control of institutions of authority and power, is indeed revolutionary.
Researching about the history of cartography, one comes to realize that no map ever drawn has been totally impartial. They have all, to some greater or lesser degree been persuasive. Persuasive maps are drawn to change the opinions of people, and have been used by fascist (and democratic) governments, empires and colonies alike. The only possible neutral map would carry a scale of 1:1, but then we are leaving cartography and entering Jorge Borges` fiction writing On Exactitude in Science.
All maps, I thus believe, contain a degree of subjectivity, a hidden rhetoric. One can view this as an impurity that should be aseptically withdrawn or as the elan vital that gives maps their throbbing passion. Even map projects that see themselves as dispassionate, neutral and scientific, as for example OSM are still persuasive. For example, I noticed that there are areas in OSM which are more “mapped” than others, perhaps indirectly indicating more important places. In other words, the density of information correlated to the assumed importance of the area mapped.
While exploring the map, I noticed another consequence of the crowdsourcing approach. Different regions of the world were mapped in different languages. Cairo (a place I plan to visit someday) had its streets and landmarks written in Arabic and used the Arabic alphabet. The same phenomena could be observed in Russia, using the Cyrillic alphabet. One can suppose that the amateur cartographers who mapped these places could have used the lingua franca, English, but that could indicate, perhaps, in their view, some degree of subservience and a lingering colonial angst. Thus it is very much plausible that an element of political, cultural, or tribal motives lay (subconsciously) behind what should be a neutral map to be used by the public.
My own mapping experience on OSM.
I set myself the task of mapping out two regions in OSM. The first one was my local neighbourhood in Cork City. I observed that most of the main roads and building were already mapped, including some useful details such as bus stops and local stores. Initially, I added to the project data from my own experience by plotting down some pathways through dense trees that I use in the summer months and minor details such as trees and local commercial establishments. I have also marked and named a few public sculptures which were remarkably absent. On repeated mapping sessions, I came to notice a sort of pattern: while shops and businesses were usually already mapped out and named, churches and libraries were not. At UCC for example, all the food shops, bathrooms and atm machines were there but the Boole Library remained untagged and unnamed. The same had occurred closer home. I also found that churches weren’t commonly identified and had a hard time finding the correct symbol to identify them on the OSM window. After a few tries I found that the symbol for churches was actually designated the more neutral place of worship (an ideological, rhetorical choice undoubtedly). These observations highlight the qualitative and quantitative selections that unconsciously are made by the registered users during their mapping efforts.
My other mapping task was small yet meaningful for me. I found that the small, secret-ish path from Conner pass road to Peddlar`s Lake, out in the Dingle peninsula was not mapped. I promptly put it there in hope that someday a happy visitor will use that information to gain access to one of the most beautiful and magical site and scenery in Ireland. On further log-ins, I have mapped out a few other trails previously explored and that weren’t in OSM. I believe that sharing my previous sauntering onto a map (and thus expanding the spatial awareness of a community) captures the essence of mapmaking.
As Martijn Van Exel eloquently said: “Open Street Map is “warm geography” at its core: real people mapping what is important to them… not the “cold geography” of thematic geodata churned out by natural mapping agencies and commercial providers”. This sums up the essence of Neocartography. My experience so far in OSM has been to input my share of data (subconsciously what I deem important) to this public, crowdsourced project. I indeed see the importance behind it, since the importance of data and maps cannot be underrated. The Haiti earthquake crisis of 2010 and OSM`s vital role in the aid efforts prove this beyond doubt. In addition, as a matter of principle, we cannot leave to some private owned company such as Google the monopoly of mapmaking, and the dangers that situation could engender have been subject of many a dystopian sci-fi novels.
For my thesis on Internet Art and Animated GIFs I cannot see a direct use for crowdsourcing, as the data I need to collect and manage is small enough for a one-man job. I can clearly identify, however, the value and importance of it as one moves towards larger projects which stem from community-based volunteer initiatives and as we march towards a more democratic and open data web environment. Some project are simply too large for a team and crowdsourcing seems to be the correct solution, albeit with some minor drawbacks, some of which I hope I have called attention to.