The Map Room - A Weblog about Maps
Just found out about Chet Van Duzer's Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, a new book out this month from British Library Publishing, which explores the monsters drawn on maps from the 10th to the 16th century. From the publisher:The sea monsters on medieval and Renaissance maps, whether swimming vigorously, gambolling amid the waves, attacking ships, or simply displaying themselves for our appreciation, are one of the most visually engaging elements on these maps, and yet they have never been carefully studied. The subject is important not only in the history of cartography, art, and zoological illustration, but also in the history of the geography of the 'marvellous' and of western conceptions of the ocean. Moreover, the sea monsters depicted on maps can supply important insights into the sources, influences, and methods of the cartographers who drew or painted them.
I may have to get this.
The Cassini team has released a global topographic map of Saturn's moon Titan. What makes this map interesting is the fact that, due to its thick atmosphere, Titan can only be mapped by radar during Cassini's close flybys. As a result, only half of its surface has been imaged, and only 11 percent has topography data. For this map, the remainder was, well, extrapolated:Lorenz's team used a mathematical process called splining -- effectively using smooth, curved surfaces to "join" the areas between grids of existing data. "You can take a spot where there is no data, look how close it is to the nearest data, and use various approaches of averaging and estimating to calculate your best guess," he said. "If you pick a point, and all the nearby points are high altitude, you'd need a special reason for thinking that point would be lower. We're mathematically papering over the gaps in our coverage."
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/JHUAPL/Cornell/Weizmann.
Google announced a complete redesign of Google Maps at their I/O developer conference yesterday. The new maps are vector-based, take up the entire browser window and change based on the context -- highlighting certain streets, for example, based on a search -- and your usage patterns. It's also apparently quite resource intensive: these are maps designed for fast processors and fast Internet connections. It's just an invite-only preview at the moment. For coverage see Engadget and The Verge.
OpenStreetMap has launched a new map editing interface that runs, for the first time, in HTML5. (Potlatch, the previous web-based map editor, uses Flash, and JOSM runs in Java, which I always thought was ironic for an open project.) The editor, called iD, is live now, and is designed to make editing the map more accessible to beginning mapmakers. I've given it a quick try this morning. My summary judgment is that if you have any experience using another editor, you should stick with it. iD is far slower than Potlatch at the moment, and does things sufficiently differently that you might have a hard time finding things. I made a mess trying to edit the existing map. But will it lower the barrier to making new contributions, particularly for casual or non-technical contributors? I hope so.
A map-making competition asking participants to submit maps of their fictional worlds? That's precisely the sort of thing I should bring to your attention, now that it's been brought to mine. First announced in February; deadline May 21.
In 2007 Eddie Jabbour released the KickMap, a map of the New York subway system that tried to square the circle of various competing and controversial New York subway map designs. The KickMap later became an iOS app; I reviewed the iPad version in 2010. Now Eddie reports that he's released a KickMap for the London Underground -- not satisfied with updating Massimo Vignelli, he's going after Harry Beck.[W]hile the Tube Map's updates over the decades have attempted to follow Beck's design, a glance at the current iteration reveals that his design heirs have failed to retain his core credo of clarity and ease of use. Ongoing expansion of the Underground, the addition of the new Overground system, and essential disability access information have made most modern Tube Maps, both official and independent, overly complex and difficult to read. ... [I]nstead of redesigning the entire map vocabulary as we did for KickMap NYC, we embarked on a fresh new effort to recapture Beck's clarity and ease of use.
A regular Underground user would be able to evaluate whether the map succeeds in its goal to improve the Tube map's clarity; I haven't even so much as been to London, much less taken the Tube. But I've downloaded the app (disclosure: I received a promo code) and have played around with it a bit.
What I can say is that the map is gorgeous and scrolls fluidly (at least on an iPhone 5). In a nice touch, it adds detail like neighbourhoods and landmarks only when zoomed in, preserving a simpler, less cluttered map when zoomed out.
Those of you who've used the New York KickMap will find much that is familiar. While it can use your iPhone's GPS to locate the nearest station -- a nice touch on a non-geographic map -- it does lack the New York app's Directions function, which can route you between two stations on the network. Something to ask for, I think, in an update.
It costs only £0.69/$0.99 and is a universal iPhone/iPad app. iTunes link.
A new book collects hand-drawn maps of Manhattan submitted by both anonymous and notable New Yorkers: Becky Cooper's Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers.It started with Manhattan in the summer of 2009 when Becky was still an undergraduate at Harvard University. Inspired by Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, as well as her own experience creating a map of New York's public art, Becky walked the length of Broadway, distributing over a thousand letterpress-printed outlines of the borough to the widest variety of New Yorkers she could find.
Via Kottke, news of a new map book that sounds rather interesting: A Map of the World: The World According to Illustrators and Storytellers, described by the publisher as "a compelling collection of work by a new generation of original and sought-after designers, illustrators, and mapmakers. This work showcases specific regions, characterizes local scenes, generates moods, and tells stories beyond sheer navigation. From accurate and surprisingly detailed representations to personal, naïve, and modernistic interpretations, the featured projects from around the world range from maps and atlases inspired by classic forms to cartographic experiments and editorial illustrations." Samples on the publisher's website. Many of them I've seen before online; I'm happy to see them reprinted.
This is something I've been meaning to write for a while. I should have written it last December, during the hullaballoo over Apple's maps, but I've never been one to strike when the iron is hot.
You'll recall that there were a lot of complaints about Apple's maps app when it launched with iOS 6, replacing the previous app that was powered by Google Maps. The map data didn't match the user experience: it was a first-rate app that used second-rate data. Apple oversold the experience and failed to meet the high expectations of its customers. It was a problem that no other online map provider had ever had to deal with before, not least because no one had launched a new map service with the same amount of hubris, nor the same amount of scrutiny from day one.
But many of the complaints about Apple's maps verged into hyperbole. The notion that Apple's maps were uniquely bad compared to other online maps was frankly unfair. Because when you get right down to it, all online maps suck. They all fail in some way, somewhere, and some more than others -- and if the maps you use seem fine to you, it's because they suck somewhere else.
Apple, after all, didn't invent map errors. Map errors have a long history; I've catalogued dozens of them over the years. Maps got people lost long before iPhones sent people into dangerous regions of Australia; satnavs' blithe directions have been leading credulous drivers into bridle paths, ditches and railways for as long as there have been satnavs. There is no such thing as an error-free map. And the alternatives have their share of them.
Take Google Maps. By the time Apple booted it off the iPhone, Google Maps had become the gold standard of online maps. Deservedly so: Google had spent considerable resources getting them to that standard (and not inconsiderable resources telling us how much they had worked on those maps). Not for nothing were people demanding its return to iOS.
The thing is, Google's maps weren't always good. Google's maps have a long history of sucking from time to time. But people have short memories, or haven't been paying attention. Google was fixing its mistakes when most web map users were still using Mapquest, most drivers were using satnavs from Garmin and TomTom, and most people didn't have smartphones.
Some of Apple's map errors had a familiar ring to them. The warped 3D images ridiculed in Apple maps -- a function of two-dimensional satellite and aerial imagery being applied to three-dimensional terrain -- were a long-established feature of Google Earth. And Google ran into all kinds of trouble when it began replacing map data from Navteq and Tele Atlas with its own data in 2009 -- the same map data it touted so much last year. There were errors all over the place. The change was called premature and "a significant step down in quality." But even before that, when Google switched from Navteq to Tele Atlas in 2008, I unearthed all kinds of new errors in my neighbourhood; switching to its own data a year and a half later fixed many of those errors but created new ones.
In hindsight, you can see Google's business logic: switching to its own mapping data, rather than relying on maps provided by companies with competing interests, like Nokia (who owns Navteq) or TomTom (who owns Tele Atlas), carried significant strategic advantages that outweighed the short-term hit to its map quality.
Building your own maps in order to avoid relying on a competitor: now where have I heard that before?
Moving along. What about OpenStreetMap? At its best, OSM can be better than any other online map. At least that's what its proponents say, citing an example like some zoo in Germany as an example of how good open source mapping can get. And, like Google, they have a point. OSM can be pretty good. I'm a heavy contributor to it, so I have a dog in this hunt: I want it to get really good.
But at its worst, it's the worst online map there is.
For example, last week I spent a surprising amount of time adding highways, rail lines, towns and even lakes in central Saskatchewan, an area of surprising emptiness in OSM even though there is lots of high-resolution imagery to trace (to say nothing of CanVec data available for importing). I couldn't do much more than lay down the grid and guess at some of the land uses (churches, schools and retail and commercial areas can usually be figured out from imagery, names can't), but while I left the map in better shape than I found it, there are still hundreds of person-hours of work left to do in that area.
The problem with OSM is also its strength: it's entirely dependent on the attention of volunteers. Where there are a lot of volunteers, the map is invariably excellent. But where there aren't any volunteers, the map is empty. For every Germany there is a Saskatchewan. While OSM is unbeatable in several areas of the world, it's safe to say that the other online maps have at least acceptable coverage of medium-sized towns in Saskatchewan. Which is to say that OSM is not uniformly good -- not yet, not by a long shot.
So couldn't you use OSM where it's better than the alternatives? Stitching together map data from disparate sources isn't exactly easy. Roads and other features might not be perfectly aligned from source to source, and the metadata isn't necessarily compatible -- ask anyone who's tried to import open government data into OSM how painless a task that is.
A final example. Yesterday I clicked on an address in Facebook for an event in downtown Ottawa. It opened in Microsoft's Bing Maps, which gave me a location in Greater Sudbury. Why it did so I have no clue, except maybe that Microsoft is being too clever with its IP address detection (my ISP is Sudbury-based). For the record, neither Apple (on my iPhone) nor Google (on the web) had any trouble giving me the right location.
Every map, no matter how good overall, has weaknesses.
This is not new. Paper maps were never free from errors, after all, and with satnavs, even the best onboard maps would become less reliable if you didn't purchase the updates.
But online maps are different: we're using them much more often than we ever did paper maps or even satnavs. We haven't just delegated our navigation skills to them: we've integrated them into our maps and websites, we rely on them for transit schedules and business listings. They give us a false sense of security and a false sense of reality: we forget that the map isn't the territory.
We used to be more tentative with our paper maps or our friends' directions. We tended to think about it more, rather than blindly follow.
We've decided that knowing where to go is no longer our problem, and getting lost is no longer our fault.
This might be a bit premature.
My search for examples of maps being used as a fantasy fiction trope brought me to the works of James A. Owen, namely, his Imaginarium Geographica series of young-adult novels, six volumes and counting. This series takes multiple myths, fairy stories and more conventional works of fiction, from many different eras and traditions, and tosses them together in a mythic bouillabaise. Its setting is the "Archipelago of Dreams," where every imaginary place -- "Ouroboros, Schlaraffenland and Poictesme, Lilliput and Mongo and Islandia and Thule, Pellucidar and Prydain"1 -- can be found.
It sounds very meta, but it doesn't succeed at all, at least not for me. I'm afraid I couldn't manage past the second volume.
So many different characters and writers are thrown together that the whole fails to cohere. There are no characters who do not turn out to be some famous writer or well-known character. Not only does this make character development all but impossible, the plot becomes one surprise reveal after the other: mystery character X will end up being anyone from Mordred to H. G. Wells. At the end of the first volume, the three protagonists -- Jack, John and Charles -- turn out to be C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, but, like many of the other allusions and reveals, it's unnecessary: with all the breathless hugger-mugger that takes place they could have been anyone else without a single change in the text.
Now in a crowded jumble of every myth and fantasy trope, character and writer prior to the 20th century, there is bound to be some reference to maps. And there is: the three protagonists are designated the keeper of the Imaginarium Geographica, an atlas that serves as a key to the entire archipelago. The phrase "Here, There Be Dragons" is used by John as a Rosetta Stone to unlock the various languages used on the map. In the first novel -- also titled Here, There Be Dragons -- they're up against the Winter King, who, when he conquers a land, its map becomes shrouded in shadow. "He thumbed through several pages until he came to one of the vanished maps. It was a yellow-tinged sheet of parchment, like many of the others, but taking the place of the illuminations and notations were several large, indistinct smudges, as if the drawings had been hastily rubbed out."2
But in the end, the Imaginarium, along with the Cartographer the protagonists visit more than once, is just one trope among many competing for the reader's attention. It's as though Owen is trying to juggle a dozen balls while performing as a one-man band on a high wire, desperately trying to maintain the attention of an audience who can't sit still for more than a few minutes.
- James A. Owen, Here, There Be Dragons (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), p. 21.
- Owen, Here, There Be Dragons, p. 112.
In 2010 I blogged about Neil Freeman's reimagined United States where the 50 states were redrawn so that each state had the same population. (That map had been circulating for a few years prior to that.) Neil has since produced a new version at the same address, with new boundaries and state names on a nicer map. Though it's just as thought-provoking. Via Kottke.
NASA has released a free-air gravity map of the Moon: "If the Moon were a perfectly smooth sphere of uniform density, the gravity map would be a single, featureless color, indicating that the force of gravity at a given elevation was the same everywhere. But like other rocky bodies in the solar system, including Earth, the Moon has both a bumpy surface and a lumpy interior. ... The free-air gravity map shows deviations from the mean, the gravity that a cueball Moon would have." Gravity data comes from the GRAIL mission, with the digital elevation model provided by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter laser altimeter. Image credit: NASA's Goddard Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.
Terry Pratchett once declared the Discworld unmappable ("There are no maps. You can't map a sense of humour."); all the same, there is now an interactive map of principal city Ankh-Morpork for the iPad. Tor.com reports that "the map is dotted with itty-bitty little people walking around Ankh-Morpork, doing their Ankh-Morpork business. Walking around, being themselves. ... While many of these figures are indistinct civilians, the city is full of characters from the Discworld novels. Of course Death is there ... " Costs $14; requires iOS 6.