EDIT: I wrote this post while working on my TEDx Calgary talk. Now that it’s live you can find it here https://www.jonathanneufeld.com/the-future-of-mapping-at-human-scale-tedxcalgary-talk/
In the beginning, we had hard copy, and it was good. The year was 600 CE and humans were happily inscribing maps onto fragments of rock and showing them proudly to their friends and neighbours.
Things didn’t change much over the next 1,400 years. I mean sure, we added velum, and paper, and scrolls, and all kinds of novel media to our inventory of hard copy supplies. We even went as far as creating a spherical version of our hard copy maps to better represent the world around us. The basics were still the same though, maps produced, distributed, and used, in a physical format.
Then, in 1996 things changed dramatically with the launch of Mapquest, the first widely accessible online mapping solution. You could use your computer to look up the location of something and generate the driving directions for how to get there. That was about it though, you still had to print off a hard-copy if you wanted to take those directions with you.
In 2007 we entered the era of mobile maps when Google Maps became widely available on individual mobile devices. A scant three years later Waze launched and allowed users to add their own data to the map.
Once users were able to add their own data to the map it became inevitable that optimization and monetization algorithms would begin to tailor the data to match the desires of the user, thus hurling us into the era of bespoke mapping products.
Until recently, the really hard part in making a map was collecting the data.
If you were a budding cartographer in 600 CE you would need to endure vast and complex journeys by ocean and land, or the painstaking gathering and verification of information from other travelers. Depending on the winds and currents your map might differ dramatically from someone else’s and objective truth was difficult to come by.
Then, once you had the finished map, it was difficult to reproduce or share. After all, if you give away your stone tablet you didn’t have it to copy anymore.
Even as we work our way up the mapping timeline, collecting the data remained the most difficult part for over a millennia. In the 1960s we invented satellites that could take photos from space. Once the roll of film was full they would shoot it out of the satellite and catch it in mid-air with an airplane!
However, in the era of Bespoke Maps, collecting the data is the easy part. Most humans carry powerful mapping devices in their pockets with high accuracy sensors and persistent connections to the internet. We have cars equipped with cameras, and radars; and satellite constellations that can image the entire landmass of the earth every day.
The era of the 1:1 scale map
I believe that we are entering a new era, the era of the 1:1 map. This era will be characterized by an overwhelming amount of high-accuracy, and low-latency spatial data. We will move towards mapping the natural world and our indoor spaces at a 1:1 scale, and we will maintain the spatial and temporal accuracy of these maps through pervasive mapping techniques.
In fact, 1:1 scale maps exist in the wild already, we just call them by a different name. They’re known as Building Information Modelling (BIM) or Digital Twins.
These digital twins are being deployed in the resource industry to monitor and manage extraction, efficiency, and prevent maintenance issues and shut-downs. They’re being used in research, architecture, and industrial modelling.
Art historian Andrew Tallon was using laser scan data inside the famed Notre Dame Cathedral to discover ancient secrets of construction and design. These same scans will undoubtedly prove useful in the reconstruction of this iconic landmark.
Beyond the Physical
Going beyond industrial facilities we can imagine how this technology would roll out through our public spaces and personal lives.
Imagine a world where you can inhabit the map, wear it around like a cloak and intimately understand the physical locations through which you travel.
Intimate connections to place, and landscape, and history give us a connection to the past, and a foundation on which to build to the future.
Using the data collected from everyone’s devices, in an ethical and transparent way, we can abstract up to the movement of a population. This allows us to begin to infer and understand the reasons and uses for our public spaces; and this sort of data can lead to improved public policy, land use decisions, and design of our civic spaces.
In the era of hard copy, from 600 BCE to yesterday, we made maps focused on physical attributes: the coastlines, hills, and canyons.
In the digital era we can map out the non-physical, psychosocial, and sociological layers that speak to why people are the space, who is there, and what it means to them.
Creating New Opportunities
As we move from one mapping era to another we create encounter new challenges and discover massive new opportunities. Consider the growth of Google Maps since it’s launch in 2007 into a juggernaut generating nearly $5B in annual revenue, and some forecasters estimating it will generate $11B annually by 2025.
Here are some areas I think are ripe for growth in the era of the 1:1 map:
- Ethical, transparent, privacy-respecting collection of movement data
- An intuitive and engaging way for users to interact with a 1:1 map
- Integrations for transportation planning, including knowledge of non-automobile modalities like walking, cycling, and more
- Mapping the carbon production and usage lifecycle to reduce emissions
- Applications for adaptation to climate change, especially for low-lying or disproportionally affected areas
Ask yourself, how will a 1:1 map disrupt the industry that you’re in? And how can you capitalize on the opportunity today?