The New Cartography

At a young age, I became interested in maps. I think it started when my dad would take me to the AAA office with him before we took a road trip. As a member, they would create a book of road maps for people and then use a real highlighter pen to track a few routes for you to take. This is way before navigation systems, of course. My dad’s old colleague also bought me a subscription to National Geographic, and each monthly issue contained some type of map — perhaps an ancient map of the Middle East, or a map of the ocean floor, and so on. I remember unfolding each map, sometimes pinning it to my bedroom wall, studying it, staring at it from my desk. Many years later, when I moved to San Francisco for the first time, one of my friends who happened to be a professional artist invited a group of us to an exhibit of old maps, and it was at this showcase where it dawned on me that maps are sometimes utilities (like from AAA), but also could hold artistic elements (like from National Geographic).

Today, we take maps and navigation for granted. Can you imagine if Google Maps didn’t exist? And, I can’t even remember how I used to drive without a navigation system. More recently, maps have come into the current tech and mobile news cycle, with startups like Foursquare and others innovating around mobile maps, and of course Apple’s switch from Google Maps to their own mapping product. And, working this summer with someone like Noah, who was an original angel investor and early executive at Keyhole, which eventually become Google Maps has exposed me quickly to what the future of mobile maps could be.

This is what I’ve been mulling over lately. Maps are utilities, tools to get us from point A to point B, but maps can also be art, a beautiful rendition of the Pacific Ocean floor before and after major tectonic shifts. Now on the web and mobile devices, maps are navigation devices, but they are also platforms for others to build on, for others to take their highlighters or artistic brushes to chart the next route or paint the next masterpiece. There’s information we want on top of maps — routes, traffic, buildings, people, data, and so forth. The possibilities are endless, really; it’s mostly a matter of overlaying data on top of a physical environment and offering new possibilities for exploration. And, I think that is why this area is so exciting: it’s the ability for technology and data, laid on top of a map, that takes us back to a younger age of exploration, where we’d pour over the simplest map, or ride a bicycle through a new neighborhood. Our brains are consistently mapping our surroundings, and now with mobile devices, with products like Google Glasses, and with so much relevant social and local data, technology is going to transport not only from point A to point B, but also perhaps back to a former time in our lives when exploration was play.

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus