Maps used to be simply scaled-down aerial diagrams of places containing navigational information. Now they contain layers of changing digital information, and it's a serious management issue, E&T explores.
There used to be a great YouTube video of a very naive young American woman, who spoke with some vehemence about why various insurgents around the world were a problem. It was - I'm not making this up - because they didn't have maps so nobody knew where they were. Americans had maps, she said, and that's why it's sometimes called 'Amaprica'.
This fact had escaped many people and it was good of the young woman to point it out. Wittingly or otherwise, though, she'd spotted something very important. People are using maps, and they are using them in many different ways. Allied to computer technology they're becoming even more of a boost to civilisation than they were before.
They may also become slightly troublesome in the wrong context and an intelligent approach to managing their use is essential.
Mapping starts, clearly, with the map-maker who draws the thing and in the UK the benchmark is the Ordnance Survey. This isn't so much of a standalone business any more, though: some 500 partners team with the organisation to add value to raw geographical information.
'There is increasing exposure of the power of geography to visualise and interpret information over the Web, in satellite-navigation systems, and many other aspects of our daily lives,' says the company's Paul Beauchamp.
'Effective data management means better data quality, better analysis and better decision making. Cost savings can be made by implementing a store-once-use-many-times regime, which will eliminate duplication by multiple users in the storage and updating of data.'
Maps in themselves aren't actually that interesting - or so says Motti Kushnir, CMO of Telmap, which helps companies overlay information onto existing maps. 'Telmap believes that overlaying content that is rich, local and relevant makes the map much more valuable to the user,' he says.
Moreover, since 'what is important constantly changes, the technology needs to be flexible enough to change with the times. For example, today people might be looking for information about local theatre, but tomorrow, when the Olympics arrive in the UK they'll want information about what Olympic events are happening where.'
This is of course an instance of a business taking an existing map and putting its own data over the top, in what's called a 'mash-up'. Many businesses and public sector agencies need to use maps themselves and share these using websites and other media.
'Telmap believes that the way to do this is to hide the complexities and offer a set of APIs [Application Programming Interfaces] to third-party developers that are easy to use and yet provide a comprehensive set of functionalities,' says Telmap's Kushnir. 'Telmap Location Platform enables websites and third-party mobile apps to add features such as search, mapping, routing and even navigation, thereby making the locations inherent in these applications much more meaningful.'
This is fine when the mapping application is in the hands of the experts, of course, but not everybody has that depth of knowledge. This has been noted by a number of respected sources including the giCentre at the City University in London. 'Our early research into 'geovisualisation mash-ups' highlighted the fact that it is easy to combine mapped data from a variety of sources and show them together in an accessible way,' says Dr Jo Wood, geographic information science expert at the college. 'But mash-ups are increasingly being created by non-experts (in the cartographic sense), so there is a danger that good cartographic and visualisation design principles can be bypassed.'
The thing is, maps aren't as fixed as they used to be.
They're on phones, they're on laptops and they're being purposed differently. Recently a lot of people have been using maps in conjunction with social networks. There is a lot to be said for this, it's a great idea when it's done well. There are a couple of applications that use your smartphone, find out where you are and tell everyone on Twitter, Facebook, wherever you're registered.
It would of course sad to start looking middle-aged at this point, but I'm going to ask: why would anyone want to do this? If someone has an appointment somewhere then the people they're meeting will presumably be aware of this anyway. If they want to announce their whereabouts then they can do it through the network regardless - hence the multitude of deeply interesting Tweets that essentially tell everyone 'I'm in the office drinking coffee'.
There's a serious management issue here. Home workers and self-employed people in particular can be quite vulnerable if they spend their time announcing when their home is going to be empty. It is unwise and a bad idea to do this, and yet people do - automating the process thoughtlessly will exacerbate the problem.
Telmap, for one, acknowledges the need to stay in charge: 'Mobile social networking is more about sharing rather than tracking, so unlike Google Latitude, Telmap will allow users to share their thoughts with others - and even allow users to let others know where they are at a particular moment (e.g. I ate here - the food was great), but we don't believe that 'friends' should be able to log in at any time and know where a user is,' says Kushnir. 'This provides end users with a complete mobile experience that allows them to socialise and interact with their friends on the go while safeguarding their privacy.'
City University's Dr Wood confirms that publicly-available APIs allowing anyone to mine public information, and he sounds a note of caution for the users of the networks that take advantage of it. 'This becomes particularly powerful when data from several sources is combined,' he says. 'For example, extracting location, contributor and content of geo-tagged photos from Flickr allows analysis to be performed that might estimate the home address, holiday destinations or place of work of an iPhone owner, for example. None of this is illegal or breaches the terms of contract of the service, but many contributors are probably not aware of the full implications of the 'spatial footprints' they leave on such sites.'
Controversy aside, there are other ways of using maps in social media which are turning out to be highly beneficial. Take the app Worksnug. The principle is simple: you take your iPhone 3GS out with you and go looking for somewhere with Wi-Fi to work. You hold the application up and point at the street with the camera. Instead of just the street, you see an overlay of directions to the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot, and you can click and read other people's comments on whether it's noisy, whether the sandwiches are any good, whatever. It all starts with a mapping application.
Or if you're in a fun mood there's the retroscope, also on the iPhone. Hold it up and point as if you were going to take a picture and the screen shows you a picture of where you're standing from the 1920s, the Victorian era, whenever they can get a picture from. It's serious fun.
Others are developing more serious applications. The Ordnance Survey is increasingly serious about 3D maps: 'Our goal is the creation of a seamless database which incorporates a detailed terrain model and our most accurate OS MasterMap data in a way that can be maintained and updated, therefore making it truly useful for more than just eye candy,' says Beauchamp.
'The result of this work is a startling representation of the beachfront in Bournemouth created using a combination of aerial and terrestrial LiDar, aerial photography and more traditional surveying techniques. The project aimed to create the most detailed 3D map possible, not because it simply looks impressive, but because we want to get an idea of the costs involved balanced against the needs of our customers.'
There are solid prospects in place for commercial use of this. 'We have been talking with a number of potential users of the data, some in areas you might expect, like architecture and planning, but other possible applications are more unusual,' explains Beauchamp. 'For example, one company is interested to renting roof space for solar panels, something for which good quality 3D mapping would be very useful for visualising changing shadows and the relationship between adjacent buildings. Perhaps this is a small example, but I think it aptly demonstrates that value of GI and how people are continually finding uses for it that we might never have envisioned.'
Dr Wood isn't as convinced about some of the applications as some people. Extending into augmented reality is something of which he is quite dubious. 'I am not convinced that we will see increasingly widespread uptake of 'extended reality' in the sense of realism in mapped data. Google Streetview is helpful for recognising destinations and selected landmarks of unfamiliar journeys, but does not summarise longer journeys, nor wider regional characteristics well,' he says.
'Cartography is about abstraction and generalisation - removing the unimportant and emphasising the important. Striving for realism, by definition, negates that purpose.
'The most significant trend we have seen, and will continue to see, is the increasing dominance of user-contributed or crowd-sourced mapping-related data. OpenStreetmap - a sort of Wikipedia for cartography - is an example of this, which now contains pretty thorough coverage in many urban areas, rendered with high quality cartography.' Like all of the social media, this is an idea in which the difference between map users and map providers is blurred, in some instances completely demolished in favour of full democratisation.
'In addition, changes in access to and contributions towards geospatial data will make the routine production of specialised mapping easier,' he says. 'For example, long distance cyclists can now make and share maps of pleasant routes between cities that incorporate terrain, road surface or traffic volume.'
In a connected world a great deal is possible and will be achieved with the use of maps. It will start with the sterling work of the OS and its international equivalents, who will continue to update and refine the information that is delivered to the medium you're using, whether that medium is paper or a phone.
What's going to change, and indeed has started changing already, is the amount of input managers will need to have into the way the information contained in the mash-up that the user sees is actually implemented and used. There are two issues at stake: one is quality, as highlighted by Dr Wood. Yes, the basic maps as offered by people like the OS are going to be of excellent quality, but the programmers who put the overlays in place which add the desired information are not necessarily going to have the right cartographical skills to make a professional job of it (consider the young woman in the first paragraph - you remember, the Amaprican woman - putting together an overlay of the best coffee bars and I'll leave that to your imagination). They're computing professionals rather than expert cartographers, why should they be map experts suddenly?
So businesses might be in danger of issuing poorly considered maps. That could damage corporate reputations. The second issue is of course related to privacy. It's no reflection at all on the technology available and everything to do with our attitude as a generation that we're blithely assuming everyone in the future is going to be riveted by the minutiae of our everyday lives. Glancing at my Twitter stream as I write, one person has put a note saying which coffee bar they're in with their son, somebody says they're about to make some cakes or might just eat the jam straight off and someone else has shared a picture of a misspelled sign in Clapham.
These are professional people, and yet they're still enthusiastically sharing everything. Presumably like any fad this will fade away eventually and be replaced by the next one, but social media and the increasingly easy links between this and maps is going to make it even easier to litter the airwaves with every last bit of trivia about what we are doing and where.
You can imagine a good case for companies in the not very distant future not only telling employees what they may and may not do on social media networks and on the Internet, but what they give away about where they're doing it. Numerous businesses are starting to implement some sort of social media policy and acceptable use guidelines: you wonder, with the increased geographical awareness of these technologies, whether we're far away from a mapping policy.