Slow Mapping & Other Open Map Stories

The 2015 AAG Conference

I have recently read this blog post from Muki Haklay’s personal blog. He has reviewed the third day of the recent annual meeting of the Association of the American Geographers (AAG) conference.

There are a number of interesting topics raised at the 2015 annual meeting of the Association of the American Geographers (AAG) conference, but two will be considered here. These include the following:

  1. Geoweb Tools for Climate Change Adaptation
  2. New Directions in Mapping 2: Open Source, Crowd-sourcing and “Big Data”.

Whilst not having been to the conference there are some interesting themes here on the use of citizen science, from mapping and creation of a climate change action plan, and around quality issues in open source mapping.

Geoweb Tools for Climate Change Adaptation

Andrea Minano from the University of Waterloo presented the following: “Geoweb Tools for Climate Change Adaptation: A Case Study in Nova Scotia’s South Shore”.

Andrea’s work explores the link between participation and citizen science. She considers the local impact of an international change, in this case climate change. She used the internet to create information that can be shared. The idea was to create Municipal Climate Change Action Plans by five different towns. By creating easy to use web tools to show information on flooding from LiDAR data (LiDAR stands for Laser illuminated detection and ranging and is essentially a laser ground scan which builds a detailed 3D ground model) and other information such as aerial images.

People could review the web site and interact with information on different spatial scales and over different time frames. This then allowed the “citizen scientists” to raise their concerns. Typically this may mean a key road link becoming flooded. This work promoted an adaptation discussion which would help to engage with people who may see the problem as too vague or too big to deal with.

Using geographical information, presenting interactive content on a clear and easy to use website means that people are engaged and can start to understand the situation with climate change differently. They can relate to it in their areas, locally, and over time, temporally, to discover where and when there could be impacts that affect them directly. People being engaged can help to formulate adaptation strategies and plan for a different world.

New Directions in Mapping

A discussion entitled “New Directions in Mapping 2: Open Source, Crowd-sourcing and “Big Data”. With Matthew Zook – University of Kentucky (chair) Sean Gorman – Inc., Andrew Hill – CartoDB, Courtney Claessens – Esri, Randy Meech – Mapzen and Charlie Lloyd – Mapbox.”

This session has raised a number of interesting questions around crowdsourced geographical information such as the OpenStreetMap project. If the information being captured here is from an elite group (such as the “information haves”, as opposed to people who do not have access to computers – the “information have nots”) then what will the consequences be? What will be mapped? Is it showing a bias area and indeed set of information that this group wants to be seen mapped?

Traditionally maps have always been bias, but as there is a move to a more open data model what does that mean for people who don’t have a say just because they have no access to digital information? Will they be left out, or will they even be left off the map entirely? There is also an issue of the quality of the overall map: a map that is incomplete through bias, poor mapping or just because people won’t map certain places is a map that is lacking in quality one way or another. Open mapping can lack the rigour that a structured government approach to mapping may have. The line between open data and government data is blurring as more government data is opened up. Often the open information is, perhaps, not the best quality either: crowdsourced information can be more up-to-date. Mapping communities vary both spatially and through what they decide to collect. There could be a very long discussion as to the reasons.

Some of the discussions here covered quick and dirty mapping, relational mapping (i.e. a networked society where others can contribute to maps from another perspective), getting meaning from maps and the future of open mapping in general.

The relational mapping concept is one that stands out. How, on a map, should other non-spatial information be preserved and perhaps linked? The relational concept opens geography to more users who may not even be so interested in the map per se. It also allows more information to be linked into a place.

The Case For Slow Mapping

Some of the issues raised were discussed and touched upon in the 2013 State of the Map conference talk “Evolving the map to completeness”. Here mapping is seen as a process and an evolving one. It starts with basic street outlines and then moves on to land use, buildings and address information gradually building more detail. Quick mapping could be used to get the basic topology in place. Slow mapping gets the last detail and will, ultimately, make the map more valuable, comprehensive and feature rich.

Bad maps can be created quickly: the idea of taking more time to create a map that informs about a place is a very good point. To map a place properly needs at least more than one visit to that place: create a first version map and then revisit. There will be other details that were initially missed or some other features or pathways, as an example, that can be discovered. Walking to create maps is far more effective than cycling or even driving. The latter two methods have their place and help to join up wider areas quickly but for a detailed and high quality map it has to be mapped slowly, and with several visits. In an area that is changing rapidly several visits are going to allow the progress of change to be mapped too. This is often the case for new developments as an example.


Slow mapping, inequalities in open map provision, relational mapping and engaging maps are all now possibilities due to open source projects such as OpenStreetMap. Map bias has always been present and will continue to be whatever the medium that maps are served up on. Ironically the communities that may benefit from the open maps most could be the ones that never get to see them: these are the people who are not part of the modern networked world (the “information have nots”).


About mappedit

Geographical practitioner with an interest in climate change, open mapping, sustainability, the transition movement, transport and many other things.
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