How many of us, when giving directions, have resorted to a Biro, a napkin and a map that looks like a starfish with some body issues? I myself have lost many a friend on the relatively simple route between restaurant and pub, solely down to my shocking lack of artistic skill and flawed sense of direction. Making maps, I decided, wasn’t for me.
As Sean Gorman of geographical data tool GeoCommons puts it – “the public often saw the end product of the map creation process, but was largely reduced to scribbling on paper when it came to creating maps of its own”. Maps were definitely something made by specialists and consumed by the masses. But now, that’s changed.
Internet mapping has embraced the user-generated element. The most obvious example is the ‘MyMaps’ service that allows Google account holders to add ‘pins’ that remind them of favorite or useful locations. GoogleMaps is also one of the many mapping services that lets users correct their details, though via a screening process; if you think your house or business has been mis-pinned, you can get in touch and change it.
So far, so good – but correcting where your house is on a map is a teeny bit boring.
Praise be, then, for the good people of OpenStreetMap. This is a fully cooperative, user-generated map of the ENTIRE WORLD, and its contributors are scrupulously, scarily accurate. They have even held events where citizens take to the streets with handheld GPS devices – the Atlanta Citywide Mapathon, for example. First-timers were encouraged to go out and map their neighbourhoods, as well as joining in group activities such as adding points of interest to public areas like parks.
So a nice mix of community engagement and generating content there – Atlanta has an ongoing, and vocal, OpenStreetMap community dedicated to getting more people involved in personal cartography – and good luck to them.
But the great thing about user-generated mapping is that it can be almost anything you want it to be and not just a record of street names and geographical features. My personal favourite is the Global Poetry System (GPS – geddit?), a map that allows people to upload site-specific poetry either that they’ve found on a wall or a piece of public art or that they’ve created themselves. Which gives rise to little gems such as this:
On a slightly more serious note, user-generated mapping has infiltrated the headlines too. For example, there’s the Solidarity Map of the TUC March for the Alternative – people who weren’t able to make it to the march itself could log on and show where they were, just to give the demonstrators extra support. And then there’s the current efforts to crowdmap the spread of radiation from the Fukishima power station in Japan. Based around data-hub site Pachube, various interactive maps allow those equipped with Geiger counters and other radiation-detecting devices to upload their findings and allow the creation of images such as this:
Maps aren’t just static objects now. They’re responsive and fluid – crisis mappers even helped rescue efforts in disaster zones such as Haiti by updating their charts of the area to show problems on the ground. They’re doing it now in Libya to help humanitarian organisations respond better to demand.
Maps aren’t the bosses of us any more – Internet cartography is anything we want it to be.