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TMCNet:  Where in the world?

[January 17, 2013]

Where in the world?

(New Scientist Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) DO YOU know where you are You are no doubt aware of who and what is immediately next to you. You may also be able to peer further, to a street name, a river or a skyscraper looming above rooftops. Chances are, then, that you could find your location on a map.

Without maps, our mental picture of our place in the world would be utterly different. Before printed maps became widespread, humans had a much narrower idea of their true surroundings, based instead on memory or verbal descriptions.

Another upheaval in our understanding of the world through maps is now under way, thanks to advances in the digital realm. There's a race on featuring some of the world's biggest companies to chart the globe and all its happenings in exquisite detail, and many believe it's just getting started.

These digital mapping efforts promise more than just the virtual reproduction of physical space. For centuries, the centre of the world was the hub of a civilisation, like China or Jerusalem, then it was Greenwich. Now, it's you. For the first time, we're using maps that know where we are and which can be customised to our needs. This development is poised to transform our ideas about our surroundings and influence our decisions as we navigate through the world. But while there may be no dragons or sea monsters in this uncharted territory, there could be surprises and dangers ahead.

Given the ubiquity of digital maps on computers and smartphones, it's easy to forget that they didn't exist until relatively recently. One of the first efforts to digitise maps was in 2001, when the UK's Ordnance Survey published virtual versions of their paper products. A few years later, a group called OpenStreetMap announced plans to create a free virtual map of the world, intended to be built by volunteers in a similar way to Wikipedia entries.

Yet digital maps only entered the mainstream after Google got involved in the mid-2000s. Google Local was launched in 2004, in which businesses' details were listed alongside a small map. Within a year, Google Maps arrived, complete with functions to search the map and give directions. Soon digital maps began to underpin hundreds of smartphone apps.

These developments were only the start. "We're still in the dot-matrix-printer period of online maps, and it's moving so quickly," says mapping historian Jerry Brotton at Queen Mary, University of London. "We're going to look back in 10 or 15 years' time and go 'Oh my god this is embarrassing'." Recently, other technology giants have cottoned on to the vast financial potential of digital maps. Microsoft has developed Bing Maps, Nokia has an app called Here and provides maps for Amazon's Kindle Fire, and last year Apple entered the fray. There's big money to be made: by owning the map, companies can sell geographically relevant advertising, as well as charge businesses to be listed. They can also charge third-parties for using the maps within apps and websites.

Inner space Despite all this activity, much of the world remains digitally uncharted. The ocean is one such frontier. Google is mapping the Great Barrier Reef; Bing Maps features shipwrecks; and a project called OpenSeaMap is charting the ocean's shipping lanes, buoys and other features.

The most coveted territory, however, is closer to home: the indoors. A navigation aid for large buildings is more useful to most people than one for a remote corner of the globe - and, crucially, there's more money to be made in a map of one small mall than one of an entire desert. Google Maps now features the annotated floor plans of around 10,000 buildings, while Bing Maps has more than 3300. The list includes public places such as airports, hospitals, train stations, universities and museums and, increasingly, large shops such as IKEA, Harrods and John Lewis in the UK, and Home Depot in the US.

Like outdoor digital maps, viewing such floor plans on a smartphone provides smarter navigation than you would get with a traditional map. One place this might come in useful is in an airport, where existing static maps on signs can be confusing, says Manik Gupta, senior product manager at Google Maps. His company's digital airport maps show where you are, and soon they hope to provide directions for getting to your gate.

This is not the only way that we are being placed at the centre of the map. Digital maps can also carry many layers of information about the world immediately around us - be it live traffic data, approaching buses or the impending weather. And crucially, the elements we see can be customised according to our needs.

A lot of this information was previously inaccessible to most people. Much of it was locked away in government or proprietary databases, says Nigel Shadbolt, chairman of the Open Data Institute in London. In recent years, these stores have been opening up. "My feeling is that this is a public good in the same way that clean air and clean water is a public good," he says.

For example, when police forces started publishing their crime data by location online, various apps emerged to display it geographically, such as Crime Maps in the UK and Spot Crime in the US. These allow people to see maps showing crimes in their vicinity, from antisocial behaviour to murder. The data is often updated rapidly - Hampshire Constabulary in the UK upload theirs within 24 hours of it happening.

Some groups are trying to synthesise all this information. City Dashboard from University College London's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, for example, provides online maps of eight major UK cities, showing live weather conditions, air pollution data from a UK government agency and CCTV images of particular streets.

What's more, some of the information added to digital maps has arguably never been charted in real-time before. For example, City Dashboard also displays indicators of local happiness, fed by data from a website called Mappiness that asks volunteers to log their mood throughout the day. Similarly, various researchers are building maps of sentiment by turning to Twitter. Many tweets are tagged by location, and by analysing the language used in updates, it is possible to infer a population's mood or opinions and plot this on continually updated maps.

Gaining such an enhanced awareness of our surroundings could influence our decisions as we navigate through the world. Imagine that you have just arrived in a new city. We have always had a vague awareness of crime levels in certain areas, but a detailed map is something more concrete on which to base decisions. Combine this with maps of house prices, restaurant reviews, local demographics, well-being and more, and it is bound to change our perception of where we choose to live or visit. This is not necessarily a welcome development for all - it could discourage investment where it is needed and entrench social deprivation in some areas.

Having such apparently rich maps to hand also raises another unanticipated consequence - that we will trust them too much. Already, prominent errors have highlighted the perils of doing so. For example, Apple recently misplaced an Australian town on its iPhone map, a mistake which led to the map's users becoming lost in the outback and having to be rescued by police.

Ensuring accuracy is far from simple (see "Maps and MacGyver", right). At the root of such problems is an important truth: no map presents reality; it is always an abstraction. "Maps are true for a certain approach," says Pat Seed, a mapping historian at the University of California, Irvine. "There aren't universal truths." Map-makers have always made a series of choices about how reality is represented - and this curation can affect our perspective without us realising. There's an analogy in printed maps: most world maps rely on the Mercator projection, devised in 1569 by Gerardus Mercator. It amplifies the size of Europe and diminishes that of Africa significantly, making it more of an abstraction of geopolitical dominance than accurate geography. Yet it still shapes our mental image of the globe.

Hidden features The problem with many digital maps is that it is difficult to know how they have been curated - and who, what and where is left out. "These questions are often extremely hard to answer," says Mark Graham, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford. The map-making choices made by the likes of Google or Microsoft are often unclear, he says, and their underlying code and principles remain secret.

What's more, the interests of these companies may not always align with those of individuals hoping for an accurate map. By searching for local cafes or bars, for instance, it can sometimes be hard to tell if the results are a true depiction of all that's out there, or a display of paid-for advertisements. The opportunity for commodification of online maps is endless - and obscured.

Reassuringly, efforts to make digital maps more transparent have been gathering pace. At its launch in 2004, OpenStreetMap (OSM) couldn't compete with the scale and detail of Google, since it relies upon user submissions. Since then, however, it has grown significantly, and is now the basis of many location-based apps. Many of its users claim that in some cities it is more accurate than Google.

OSM's open approach to editing offers people greater autonomy over the maps they use. "It allows people to go in and change what was otherwise dictated to them," says Steve Coast, the organisation's founder. Whether OSM can dislodge Google's dominance is unclear, but its supporters argue that at least there is competition from an organisation whose priority is accuracy and transparency, not financial profit.

Digital maps may end up influencing more than just our commercial decisions, though. As more and more of us rely on smartphone-based maps for navigation, this may affect our ability to build maps in our minds, says Georg Gartner, a cartographer at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria, and president of the International Cartographic Association.

Gartner argues that reading maps on cellphones can affect our spatial cognition. Small screens mean that we view less of a map's context at once. In one experiment, Gartner found that people who used a series of smaller maps to navigate through a city found it harder to orient themselves in relation to landmarks compared with those who used a larger map with more visible context. They also struggled to describe an accurate picture of their route.

And, if you are on foot at least, digital maps can be less effective than paper maps at helping you navigate. Toru Ishikawa at the University of Tokyo, Japan, compared the navigation skills of digital and paper map users on unfamiliar streets. He found that those referring to their phones travelled more slowly, walked longer distances and were worse at working out their orientation than those using a paper map (Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol 28, p 74).

When using paper maps, we have to make an effort to interpret our location. But without flexing these mental muscles we are in danger of becoming less able to hold maps in our heads. "A map on a mobile device or in a navigation system leads to less accurate mental maps and a lower ability to act in the real world," says Gartner.

Digital maps offer to enhance and optimise the world, giving us an even richer experience as we navigate through it. But equally, there is the risk that they could make us duller, less questioning and more unadventurous - providing a curated, virtually mediated experience that will make us more reliant on proprietary tools than ever before.

The potential risks and rewards as we enter this digitally mapped terrain are high. If we stay informed, perhaps we won't get lost. n Kat Austen is an opinion editor at New Scientist Uncharted territory: the new age of mapping The way we use maps is changing, says Kat Austen - and it'll overhaul a great deal more than how we navigate Ever since the first maps, designers have shaped our world view "We're in the dot-matrix printer period of online maps, and it's moving so quickly " Making digital maps is far from easy. Underneath the surface, they are built from myriad sources, which can lead to errors.

For their base maps, the likes of Google and Apple still heavily rely on traditional mapping organisations. For topographic information on many countries, Google Maps turned to Dutch mapping provider Tele Atlas, which in turn collates information from established bodies, such as the UK's Ordnance Survey.

Google wants to change that. For the last few years, it has been implementing a project called Ground Truth. A large part of this effort involves processing satellite and Street View imagery to build maps from scratch. Google engineers train algorithms with optical character recognition software to read signs - such as street names or "one way" warnings - so that roads are accurately labelled. They can also recognise company logos on shopfronts so that businesses on the map are up-to-date.

Using software automation to map the world helps speed up the process, but it can come at a price. In 2010, for instance, Google accidentally renamed the Greek island of Samos after the 1980s TV character MacGyver. Google's algorithms were scraping Wikipedia for geographical information, but a vandal had altered the online encyclopedia. The "island of MacGyver" wasn't corrected for several days.

Small-screen maps may shrink your mental world too (c) 2013 Reed Business Information - UK. All Rights Reserved.

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