Last Friday I was interviewed for a magazine about my thoughts on maps. This because I will be giving the opening key-note at the yearly conference of the GIS (geo information services) community in the Netherlands in September. The theme for the conference is ‘the power of maps’, and they interviewed me about my planned talk.

Now, I don’t know what I will be presenting in September, as I usually prepare my talks very shortly before a conference. So this interview was a good way of getting some first thoughts formulated. Here’s me thinking out loud.

Maps are fascinating

Maps are fascinating artefacts to me. Not just because of what they show to help me navigate in the now, but also, if not more, because of the patterns of past behavior they show. From a city map you can see a lot of its history. Street patterns are the fossilized emergent patterns of complex human interaction in a bygone age. Maps as (historical) data visualization not just as a navigation aid or information overview.

Map of the original grants of village lots from the Dutch West India Company to the inhabitants of New Amsterdam

Geo data is a key ingredient in open data

In most open data applications some sort of geo component is being used. It is one of the key ways other types of data are contextualized for a user of an application. To present information relative to me and my current or future position, to be able to compare my own actions to those of others around me, etc. This however does not need to have a map as my primary interface. In fact I’d rather have an interface that helps me solve my problems or helps me decide. And I certainly don’t want to see clumsy maps, like those you have on hotel booking sites, where the map is mostly just an illustration. Why can’t I e.g. use the map there as input method? Draw a rectangle on a map and show me the hotels in it that fit my other search criteria (availability, style and comfort, free wifi, price, in that order)? Or why not show me all the hotels within x minutes on foot or by public transport from a specific spot (like a conference venue), in a similar way as what Mapnificent is doing.

Knowledge nomads have loosened themselves from the map

In my professional network there are many that don’t have strong geo located roots anymore. In the 20th century it made sense to ask ‘where are you from’ but no longer. The question now gets a slightly uncomfortable stare and increasingly vague answers like ‘I currently work from Berlin’ or ‘I’ve just spent a few months in Barcelona’. These knowledge nomads are like flocks of birds, ever on the move, never really in a place in the traditional sense of ‘being from there’. Connections are to social networks, projects, interests, that of course will have locations attached to them always. But location is a temporary choice at most, and a side-effect of other choices most of the time. And air travel makes moving around like taking the underground: you go from one place to another without much noticing the in-between, or having the sensation of movement.

In that context maps and things like nation states become much less relevant. It is the hyper-local that becomes more relevant as a result, but a hyper-local bubble around my current position. An old Medieval notion of being in a digitalized world. Where are my contacts in town at the moment? Where are interesting places to eat, drink and have fun? Where is a coffee bar within 500 meters of my current position that my network thinks provides good coffee? What is currently happening at the spot I will be arriving at in 30 minutes? What is happening where that will impact, or needs to, my current actions and choices (traffic jams, road blocks, events, freak weather, etc.)? This is why I used Plazes, and use Foursquare, Google Latitude and Dopplr. See some earlier thoughts on this hyper local bubble and the ‘real time web’.

Berlin on Flickr: Blue pictures are by locals. Red pictures are by tourists

The map no longer a ‘thing’ in itself?

So as knowledge nomads ‘do more nomading’ maps get less relevant as a product or service in itself, but location contextualized information that influences my actions, choices and my relationships to my networks is getting more and more important. Does it mean maps and geo in general will go ‘under the hood’ of the applications and tools I will be using? Where geo is an ingredient for context, and a way of bridging and combining very different data sets, but mostly unseen at the surface?

I think there might be a lot of new added value in the map, if we let go of the map. The map is never the landscape. In order to be valuable the map needs to become a part of the landscape at least however: the mobile landscape that is my life.

10 reactions on “The Power of Maps / Beyond the Map

  1. Hi Ton, ik werk aan het kennislandschap bij t Kadaster.
    En inventariseer oa welke kennis t Kadaster nodig voor de toekomst. Wellicht een idee om je even in contact te brengen? Ik geloof dat je t ook even moet hebben over 3D/5D.

    • Hoi Joop, leuk je hier te ‘zien’! Ik bel je deze week even. Benieuwd hoe het gaat.

  2. Hi Ton,

    Perhaps you are interested in the book ‘How to Lie with Maps’:

    Some years ago a keynote speaker at a pre-IFLA Conference referred to this book. The audience of this conference was librarians and she was arguing that librarians should ‘dare to deal not just with information, but a step earlier in the process, with data’. She took this book as an example about how we easily lie with maps. And now that we are using the Internet intensively, should we all believe what has been published. We always need to question that data.

    So, when talking about maps, visualisations, geo-tagging and so forth: or we need to recruit data specialisr, or we demand we all become data literate!

    • Thanks Richard for the tip. Yes data literacy is important here. I think at a GIS conference I will try and avoid too much talking about maps in my presentation: it’s not where my knowledge is, but the audience’s ๐Ÿ™‚

      Up to me to dive into the consequences of data abundance and connected need for literacy, as well as to ask new questions.

  3. Hi Ton,

    Good point: beyond the map. I’m wondering how many users of TomTom and other SatNavs use the map mode (whether in 2D or 3D), and how many use the text mode Not to mention the audio minded users who just listen to one of the Satnav’s built-in voices and ignore the screen completely.

    However, in entirely different uses the fuzzyness (or “semi-interpretednes”) of maps are their main use. For instance in nationwide spatial planning issues, where the map sort of presents a concept, not a detailed blueprint.

    Looking forward to your keynote @the GIS conference!

    • Hi Gert-Jan,
      thank you. Good point about the nav systems. I have friends who have this voice-only thing, and no screen in the car at all. Fuzzyness, yes, there’s something to that, places where not being exact is a feature, not a bug. In complexity there should be many more ‘fuzzy’ places. A notion to explore a bit more in the coming time. See you in September ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I hope you will also say something about joining ‘the open data movement’. GIS seems to have been a world (i.e. industry) somewhat separated from the IT industry.

    Note: This is not an accusation, actually I think this is quite amazing. The GIS field has a very complete range of complexe technologies, data and expertise which is not easily transferred. The word ‘ambacht’ comes to mind.

    But with all kinds of open data opening up, joining the more generic open data scene brings all kinds of possibilities for business, new products, and knowledge sharing.

    • I will most certainly point to the importance of community building ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Hi, I don’t get it. Knowledge nomads don’t use maps? The contrary I’d say …

    • I don’t say knowledge nomads don’t use maps (and not sure what makes you think I did), I said that they have a very different relationship to location compared to others. That changes the role of a map, and possibly the shape of what we consider to be a map.

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