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The Right Tempo A blog by Felipe M. G. Ceotto

I was reading this article on BBC today, online maps 'wiping out history', and I couldn't believe what I was reading. For me, this is just another example of someone who cannot cope with the fact that the Internet is changing their jobs, just like the librarian I wrote about in this other article.

This article now is about the president of the British Cartographic Society, Ms Mary Spencer, saying that the Internet maps are leaving important landmarks that are part of History out, and that people will miss that, but that is so not true! Online maps probably have a lot more landmarks than regular paper maps, and they do have the historic landmarks such as churches, museums and others, and also the restaurants, pubs, and much more. They're just not displayed all at the same time due to a nice resource that is the dynamic way they are presented (and because that would be impossible to read), contrary to the static way a paper has to be. This has a disadvantage, I guess most people would say: the person using the map has to ask for it, but at least Google Maps and Google Earth have presented the users with several options to even show whatever has been marked in a certain area, even if you haven't asked for something in specific.

I'm going to talk more about Google Maps than Live Maps and the others because it's what I'm used to use more. So, if you search for the Royal Albert Hall in Google Maps, it will tell you where it is (check it here), and or course, it will show you a photo of the place, its address, telephone number, web site, and a lot of information a regular map wouldn't. But I get the point, if I wasn't looking for the Royal Albert Hall specifically I wouldn't see it in the map straight away as a point of interest... that is, if I'm not looking at the satellite view, since this case in particular would show me a big and interesting ceiling in that area which would make me wonder what it was, and Google Maps would have told me. But that's easily solved, let me explain how.

If you're in Google Maps and you don't know what you're looking for in a certain area, you can do the widest and wildest searches possible, for example, you could search for places of interest, South Kensington, London. That search would come up with the Royal Albert Hall, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum that Ms Spencer said that were missing, plus Harrods, and a lot of other points in the surrounding areas which a regular map wouldn't even think about showing. Another missing landmarks pointed by Ms Spence were some churches, like the Worcester Cathedral. Well... I searched for churches, Worcestershire and there you go... Google Maps came with a list of 1580 churches near Worcestershire, UK, including the first in the list, the Worcester Cathedral.

My point is: don't tell me the information is missing from those maps, because it isn't. It takes some getting used to, such as everything else. Just like looking at a paper map, you need to learn some conventions, such as that a cross symbol represents a church, and several others, and I would say that our modern online maps are easier to learn. Ms Spencer said that "[online maps are] diluting the quality of the graphic image that we call a map", but I say it is actually increasing a lot the quality, presenting us with simultaneous street maps, satellite image, and even geographical and geological information. She also mentions that "the consequence will be long-term damage to future generations of map readers, because this skill is not being taught in schools" but I believe that the only thing happening is that the skills are changing and perhaps that is not being grasped by the cartographic society, because online mapping and specially the easy access to satellite images are definitely a threat to their profession as it is, in a certain way, and it is causing changes to it, and almost everybody is resistant to changes.

I always liked maps as a child and I played a lot with my Atlas, "travelling" around the world, and I remember downloading the first version of Google Earth, and how many hours I spent "travelling" to different places and finding interesting information, and a lot more information than I could find in my Atlas. I still do that today, and although I had fun and learned with "regular" maps, I think I learned a lot more with the modern online maps. Although the mentioned Open Street Map is a very interesting initiative, I don't see it as something different from Google Maps, since Google Maps (and a lot of the others) let you share your information as well, adding places and all, and having corporations behind these maps is not necessarily something bad.

Posted on Friday, August 29, 2008 11:49 AM Technology , Politics | Back to top


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