21st-Century Maps Reflect Changing Technologies and Needs

National Geographic News
April 30, 2001

At the recent North American convention of the International Map Trade Association in Washington, D.C., National Geographic Maps President William Stoehr discussed the latest developments in cartography. Stoehr is a past president of the International Map Trade Association.

What are the major trends in mapmaking?

Technology has changed dramatically over the past decade—the way maps are made, sold, delivered, and used. The change has impacted all four general areas of the map business we serve: navigation, recreation, education, and decoration.

Today maps are produced digitally and delivered electronically. National Geographic's MapMachine is an example of this. This is an ATM-like kiosk that is starting to appear in retail outlets throughout the United States. It allows users to browse for maps they need, customize them, and print them out.

Similarly, we are beginning to see maps that may be downloaded to Palm Pilots or other mobile devices.

The advantage of being able to get maps online like this is that they can be easily updated by both the producers and users of maps.

Combine all this with the Global Positioning System (GPS) and you have maps that are instantly available, up-to-date, customized, interactive maps for users with very specific interests and needs.

Technology has certainly changed the way we use maps. It's fashionable to talk about the convergence of technology, and in the case of maps we are seeing the coming together of ancient know-how, the craft and artistry of mapmaking, with mobile Internet devices that can be updated interactively from the field and shared via the Internet with users everywhere.

So with the new type of maps people have found additional uses for maps?

Maps frequently help people to make decisions. They provide critical information. But like the news business, where yesterday's news is old news, out-of-date maps may lack critical or desired information needed by the user.

Think of a hiker in the mountains who uses a trail map. It shows a lot of information but it may not show yesterday's snow slide or a bridge that was washed away. With electronic delivery, maps can be updated as soon as the information becomes available. We can update our MapMachines through modems so that customers get the very latest data available.

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