Maps have gone from being static, analog, and unidirectional to being dynamic, digital, and interactive. Mapping experts explained their evolution during a panel discussion Tuesday morning at GEOINT 2022.
If you came of age before the advent of computers, smartphones, and social media, your notion of a “map” is probably outdated. What used to be a static piece of paper in the glove compartment of your car—folded like a piece of origami—is now a dynamic, multidimensional, and oftentimes digital tool for understanding time and place.
A group of mapping mavens unpacked the evolution Tuesday morning at GEOINT 2022 during a panel discussion titled “What is a Map?” Led by moderator Nadine Alameh, Ph.D., CEO of the Open Geospatial Consortium, the 45-minute session featured four expert panelists who shared their infectious love for mapping and their mind-bending thoughts about its changing nature: Brig. Gen. William Glaser, head of the Synthetic Training Environment Cross Functional Team at Army Futures Command; Daniela Moody, Ph.D., vice president of artificial intelligence at commercial GEOINT provider Arturo; Ed Parsons, geospatial technologist at Google; and Lee Schwartz, Ph.D., geographer of the United States at the U.S. State Department.
“Map is such a flexible term,” Parsons said at the start of the session. “From historic times of someone writing on a cave—here’s where we’re going to go hunting—to the metaverse of today with mixed reality…map is the term that we use. But it means so many different things.”
The defining feature of maps used to be the compass: a tool with which to judge north, south, east, and west. Now, maps’ signature element is the blue dot, panelists noted. The former is about determining where you’re going; the latter is about understanding where you are.
“That blue dot…indicates the fact that the map is not something that’s passive anymore. It’s something that you interact with,” continued Parsons, who said maps used to convey information exclusively, but now are also a means of collecting it. “The map is changing its contents depending on what we’re doing, but we’re also sharing what we’re doing with the developers of that map in different ways. There’s a virtuous circle. The fact that we’re using a map application will inform other users of that map application [about] what’s going on in a particular area.”
The shift from compass to blue dot brings with it a host of interesting questions and challenges, panelists suggested. The ubiquity of maps, for example, means that mapmakers have to be more cognizant than ever of what the purpose of a given map is, as well as how it will be used and by whom.
“Cartography is as an art, not just a science,” Schwartz explained. “Maps need to be visually compelling as well as providing a lot more information. And when we talk about foundation GEOINT as important for mapping, we also need to realize that’s just one component of a map. There’s so much more above and beyond foundation GEOINT…[that we can use] to enrich the map.”
In fact, modern maps can be enriched with so many features and so much information that one might wonder: Are conventional 2D maps still relevant? The panelists answered with a resounding “yes.”
“There clearly is still a need for simplicity in an increasingly complex world,” said Parsons, who hails from the United Kingdom and said one of his favorite maps is the iconic map of London’s underground transit system, the Tube, which was created by cartographer Harry Beck in 1933. “It’s a perfect example of extracting the complexity of London’s transport network and explaining it very simply. It’s by its nature a 2D map that makes huge changes to the underlying drawing to communicate its core purpose.”
Even more important than simplicity is reliability.
“The race that we’re in as a community is no longer just producing pixels—creating more sets of data—but distilling those into the right insights. With that comes a lot of responsibility,” Moody said. “More and more entities are producing maps, are producing insights, or are producing geospatial information, so…how do we know which information can we trust?”
New mapping opportunities and challenges demand new mapping skills and competencies, panelists indicated. Tomorrow’s GEOINT experts, for example, must be trained to critically evaluate maps for quality and credibility, Parsons said, while Moody emphasized the importance of complementary disciplines like data science and remote sensing.
“We can no longer separate the ability of creating maps from the ability to do [data collection],” Moody said.
And yet, the more maps change, the more important it becomes that mapping stays the same, urged panelists, who noted the importance of preserving analog cartography and navigation skills in case of future technology failure or denial.
“We cannot forget those skills,” concluded Glaser, who promised to emphasize to warfighters—and even to his own children—the importance of the compass in a blue-dot world. “I will continue to…make sure that they understand not just where they’re at, but which way is north.”