Mapping geographies of the planet and of ourselves

Why are there so many maps? We’re mapping our brains; various genomes; fantasy and literary environments; with increasing granularity, our cities (thank you, Google); and more, both on and off the planet.

The urge of map something or anything is old, stretching back at least 8,000 years (according to the History of Cartography essay on Wikipedia) and it spans various cultures, Arab, Chinese, Indian, European, Mongolian, and others .

We seem compelled to create maps as a means of understanding and exploring our planet, ourselves, and more. Lately, it seems there’s been a ‘mapping explosion’ and I’m not the only one to notice.  Brian Timoney in a Sept. 1, 2011 posting on Mapbrief.com comments,

That the web mapping explosion of the past few years has ushered in a new Golden Age of Cartography has been noted more than once (here, here, and here). But what is really exciting is that the increasing variety of tools for map-making are engaging folks from a variety of disciplines, including the emerging field of Information Design. For those of us with traditional GIS training, the delight of encountering great cartography in unexpected places is tempered by the realization that while we GISers are good at making maps, we seem especially adept at making ugly maps.

…, why does any of this matter? Because good design enhances comprehension.  As the stories we are trying to tell with maps become more multivariate and nuanced, the penalty for thoughtless design is at best puzzlement, at worst misunderstanding. We have arrived at a point where the ‘general user’ does notice the difference in cartographic presentation between Google Maps, Bing, Mapquest, and Open Street Map.

As per my mention of brains and genomes (human, bacteria, plant, etcl) earlier, scientists seem to have discovered a new passion for mapping.

Strangely, we don’t tend to remember that all maps are inaccurate; they are only approximations. This is certainly not mentioned in this BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) produced short video from Episode 3 of the Beauty of Maps, which extolls what’s described as a golden age of cartography in Amsterdam,

I wonder how the practice of science is going to change as we map and visualize data with more frequency and the written word loses its primacy.

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