Do internet maps make us forget our culture?

Another person is wrong on the internet! Let me dispense with her arguments anon so we can finally get back to regularly scheduled blogging (as I will have my backlog nearly cleared)…

Internet maps will make us forget our culture: So warned Mary Spence, President of the British Cartographic Society, at a session on the Future of the Map at the annual conference in London of the Royal Geographical Society held on Aug 28. Google’s own Ed Parsons was on hand to offer a rebuttal. Said Spence:

Corporate cartographers are demolishing thousands of years of history — not to mention Britain’s remarkable geography — at a stroke by not including them on maps which millions of us now use every day. We’re in real danger of losing what makes maps so unique; giving us a feel for a place even if we’ve never been there.

The Map Room‘s Jonathan Crowe has already mustered all the salient arguments in defence of internet mapping, while Catholic Gauze and GIS Lounge add worthy points. I have a few of my own.

Spence argues that the answer is Open Street Map, a wonderful crowdsourcing effort to create a Creative Commons dataset of maps and points of interest (POIs), in effect duplicating Google’s efforts but without the proprietary ownership model for the resulting data. She likes them because OSM in the UK shows POIs by default, showing churches but also public parking garages, pubs, mailboxes, bus stops and bike paths. Here’s an OSM closeup of Cambridge:

But what if I’m not interested in pubs, or don’t have a car I need to park? And further down the line, who decides what is appropriate to add to a default layer — are pubs in Cairo an OK addition to OSM’s base layer? What about places of worship in the UK that are not in old church-like buildings? Isn’t it just more useful to separate the base map from the POIs and let users add layers for churches — or beer — if they are so inclined? Isn’t the presumption of monolithic culture something we’re trying to outgrow? (And hasn’t Google made it ridiculously easy, BTW, to turn on such layers in Google Earth, even including layers with photos of landmarks where the density of photo placemarks is excellent proxy for relative cultural importance?)

Second, Spence is convinced that UK Ordnance Survey maps would never make the mistake of omitting her beloved cathedrals from their default map. In that case, a solution to all her problems is at hand: Have the Ordnance Survey release its maps to the online public, just as Google and Microsoft and Yahoo have done. Better yet, have OS mine its geo-database and publish to the public domain standards-compliant KML for all UK cathedrals, all battles, all historical monuments — just as the Swedes have done — so that map users like Mary Spence will never again be forced to look at a context-free “corporate” map.

Oh, you mean Ordnance Survey doesn’t want to play?

Perhaps Spence could ask nicely?

7 thoughts on “Do internet maps make us forget our culture?”

  1. I couldnt agree more with your response. It was a stupid comment by Mary Spense that just demonstrates she has no idea how happy the online mapping community would be to be able to show this data freely (or even cheaply) online!

    I truly belive the OS are stifling the use of web based mapping in this country therefore harming uk businesses!


  2. I do a lot of work on the default map style for OSM and am in constant conflict with others in the project about what should and shouldn’t be included. There are those that think NO pois should be included and those that think that ALL pois should be included. I tend towards the former view, and am reasonably happy with what has been implemented so far, and some seem to agree. It was particularly pleasing to see Steven Feldman blogging “Have a look at the styling of the maps in OSM and you will see what can be achieved with good styling.” But I do take your point about possible cultural conflicts.

    What I would like to see OSM moving towards is having a POI layer, with data switchable by users. That is surely one of the big advantages that online cartography can have over printed maps – the power to choose your view. Openlayers is out there waiting to be taken advantage off. However, the OSM output at the moment is tile-based, using mapnik rendering, and thus someone needs to do some tweaking of the map output flow to allow user selectivity to be possible. With the talent around it is only a matter of time before even more useful and innovative outputs are made possible for users from this rich data source.

  3. the internet, blogs, forums, instant messaging, online maps, wikis, is another communication channel that we open to ourselves, that doesn’t nullify the other ones we have. forms of communication are not proportional, it adds and expands.

  4. How is stating that a new technology will cause a society to lose its culture different then stating that a new technology can change and likely increase and revitalize ones culture? ( ..ok- yes it is different but only in its focus of the same phenomena)

    Both are stating that McLuhan’s digital-tech environment is going to have an impact on how we perceive ourselves and transmit and share that perception of our social paradigm with one another and strangers.

    That you can see this change as either positive or negative should be a given. Maybe Ms Spence is not aware of the cultural benefits to ensue with change, or maybe she is aware of them and wants to make others aware of what they also risk losing with just accepting that change. But her premise that new technologies, specifically digital immersive ones, shall cause cultural memories to shift in their focus seems obvious.

    Instead of ranting, maybe the community can bridge the gap and reach out to her community as likely she is not able to the same.

  5. Yes, I agree with you, because the real place is have its own importance, because you can feel yourself at there in old age, but when we see them on the Google Earth or in photos, its only a picture and nothing else.

    Outsourcing Solution in BPO

    Jim Curtz

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