Thursday 16 May 2013

The new cartography of Google Maps

There's already a lot of comment on the interwebs about the new Google maps redesign. Here's a few of my own thoughts...

I like the new design. Yes, it shares many design cues from Apple's own maps but at least Google have the content to back it up. With so many players in the map-making market, maps will always begin to morph to what fashion is dictating. Why would any company make a map that jolts its users (customers) too much? The fashion is for clean, simple, uncluttered cartography with soft colours and minimalist symbology. Hmm...they are all basic cartographic principles; it's amazing it's taken so many companies this long to figure it out!

The big news is that Google have been the first to jump with their move towards personalized cartography. A map on your device that knows who you are, what you like and populates it accordingly. Based on all of the lovely personal details it captures on your movement, shopping habits, searches and who knows what else your map will show what you want, where you want it. The map will no doubt contain basic features but the thematic content will change. My map will no doubt show every football stadium (but I bet it shows American football stadiums in the US rather than soccer) and based on my recent needs, painters and decorators. So it'll be useless to me. Maps have always been based on decisions made by a cartographer and to an extent they all suffer in the sense that they are disconnected from the person who uses it. However, we used to have different maps for different purposes, designed for that purpose. Now we have one map, designed to cover every eventuality. It's impossible to make that work for everyone so the idea of tailoring it to individuals is at first sight a good one. But...what role does that leave for the cartographer? Maps now based on algorithms from searches doesn't strike me as the best way to make sensible choices about what to include and exclude on a map...because most people will make highly subjective choices; and most people's mental maps of the world, manifest through the stored searches and habits that Google will now use to build that picture, are actually pretty poor.

That is why cartography is important. The role of the cartographer is to figure things out to make a map that suits a purpose. Left to machines that build individual maps is potentially going to leave us with so many poor maps of the world it'll end up being impossible to make any sense of it. I'm due to visit Dresden, Germany, later in the year for the International Cartographic Conference. Do I really want the map to show me all the things that I use routinely around my home town? No...I use places differently. I will not want to know where the painters and decorators are. I want to see a map made by a cartographer for someone to use AS a search tool, rather than present the results of aspatial searches transposed to a new space altogether. I want to be able to explore; possibly serendipitously. I want the map to guide me, yes, but I want to be able to discover things that perhaps I never even knew about or had the knowledge or foresight to have somehow imbued my Google profile with ahead of my visit.

Where will borders be placed? Where I want them or where I perceive they exist? Will I see Starbucks everywhere (as one of my colleagues mentioned) or will I see small local independent coffee shops that might expand my coffee universe? Do I want to be constrained to my view of the world or do I want to see the world? Ultimately, I know where I live better than Google. My mental map is accurate already and I don't need it to go through Google's filters to make me that map. Elsewhere? I want to see that place objectively, not through some homogenized filter that makes it look like everywhere else I know. For that I'll consult a reputable, authoritative map made by a cartographer or company I trust to do the job properly.

Maps have always had the potential to lie and its true there are many poor maps that just don't support any meaningful use. But isn't that the problem? For many years maps have slowly become mainstream and lacked cartographic control or input. But rather than try to fix the problem by giving each of us our own narrow view of the world that will simply serve to narrow our outlook even further, why not just work harder to make good maps.

So the map is made for me is it? Well, I'm a cartographer and I can tell you now...the map Google is going to serve for me will not contain what I want. I don't want it based on how I use their other services. I certainly don't want it populated with ads. Let's not forget that Google are an advertising company and realizing that maps are a great way of getting stuff in front of people is their ticket to sales and revenue.

The landscape is changing rapidly and I admire Google for giving this a go. If it weren't for what they released on February 8th 2005 we'd not have seen such ground-breaking change and such a mapping revolution. This may well be another case of disruptive change that pays off (for them) but I'm not yet convinced. Democratized cartography is one thing but there's an old adage about people not knowing what is good for them so basing a map on only what people have shared about themselves consciously or unwittingly is fraught with potential pitfalls. I support good cartography and maps made by people who know what they are doing. Yes, some are bad and some lie but having millions of different maps that all lie in multifarious ways doesn't seem to me to solve any cartographic problem. It seems to me to be mapping for the lowest common denominator. Google have gone from a one map fits all approach to mapping for individuals. I'm of the view that somewhere in the middle is about right...and that's the art of cartography!

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