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 But like the news business, where yesterday's news is old news, out-of-date maps may lack critical or desired information needed by the user.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.

Technology allows users to make specific maps that aggregate elements they are interested in and discard those they find irrelevant.

But even more exciting, to me, is the advent of what we are calling mapXchange. Check it out on the National Geographic Web site ( ). On mapXchange people can not only get up-to-date information but they can provide such information to others. It's an online cartographic community.

The kind of application for this exchange of information would be something like where certain bird species have been spotted in a particular region in the past month. Qualified individuals, agencies, and organizations can submit such information to us, and we in turn quality check it and make it available through the Web site to anyone who wants it.

It's like a chat room where members can swap user-specific map information. For instance, it is unlikely that an organization or individual could create an economically feasible map of, say, where to take their dogs for a walk without a leash within five miles from their home. With mapXchange, using our basic maps and software, they can be in touch with other dog-lovers in their area and collaborate on creating such a map, post it on the Internet or e-mail it to one another.

How do people use maps for recreation?

Technology allows people to integrate maps with video, photos, and, of course, Web pages. One can personalize a map and add almost any kind of information to it, including video and photographs. This can be done on the map, alongside, or in windows that pop up from Web pages. Maps can be added to video and photo albums. Personalized maps have become part of people's memories.

What innovations in mapping do you see ahead?

In our MapMachine kiosks you are going to see greater functionality on even more compact equipment. Apart from being able to customize and print in a choice of scales any section of the United States, users will soon be able to download and print the huge database of National Geographic reference maps. NG maps are world famous for accuracy, detail, and quality. Some of them have great historic value, such as those produced in World War II which were used personally by Roosevelt and Churchill.

The enormous database of maps that will be available through MapMachine dwarfs what is routinely available for regular users of maps. Where typically a rack in a retail outlet may hold 20 maps, the MapMachine may offers 20,000 or more. And they're up-to-date.

We are already seeing much more content becoming available for maps. The former Soviet Union countries and those of the Soviet bloc have started making their maps available commercially, and they've added a lot more information to what's out there for public use.

National Geographic cartographers constantly think hard about how to make maps more useful and interesting. We stay abreast of new technologies and we try to be creative about how to adapt them to maps. Maps are at a tool to deliver accurate, vital information quickly. We're looking at how we can use mobile devices to do that.

I believe we are going to see interactive maps eventually on paper-thin "screens" that can be folded. They will be powered by tiny chips.

I'm convinced we will someday see holographic maps, 3-D images that will appear in front of you or on a folding screen. You will be able to rotate them and zoom in or out and virtually experience being inside the map.

When I think about looming innovations in cartography I sense that there is always something out there that someone is even now developing in her or his garage. It will be dramatic, something we have not yet thought about, and it will take maps to a new and exciting level. Technology is like that.


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