Here be data

As we continue to explore exploration in cycling and beyond, this piece from the archive of Rapha's Mondial magazine gets lost in the land of cartography. Originally published in Mondial 004, it tells how the digital age has given map-makers powerful tools to discover new realms

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The world is always changing, moving, never really in equilibrium. It is a feeling we mostly avoid. Humans are drawn to stability as if by instinct. There is no safety in motion or in change. We want to be grounded in a place, in a space, with which we are familiar. Perhaps that is why throughout the centuries we have loved and created maps. Pictured on these printed surfaces is an image of our world and its spatial complexities abstracted and made simple – reduced from three dimensions to an easier-to-handle two. Maps give us the illusion that nothing is changing and that all the paths we want to travel are clearly marked for us to follow. At least that is how it used to be.

I am standing on a small but not insignificant glacier in the French Alps looking at a paper map made from a survey done only a few years ago. It shows in clear relief the extent of ice and rock as it has been for most of the last few centuries. Streams of bright-blue frozen water, perhaps 100 feet thick, are shown cascading down into the valley below like a large river, descending steeply from solid mountains whose form changes in geologic, and not in human, timeframes.

As I look down at this folded piece of paper, however, I see differences. Somehow the reality that reveals itself in the spectacular vista does not match the cartographer’s vision. There is now stone where once was only ice. The waters of a small, aqua-blue lake reflect the strong rays of the sun where my map tells me there is only bare, grey rock. The true dynamics of our constantly changing world contrast deeply with the supposed accuracy of the map’s stark, but mistaken, relief.

For cartographers like myself, who travel in the high places of the world, there has always been something about mountains that makes them appear to be the most mappable of objects. They rise out of the landscape like islands. The surrounding terrain of lower elevations focuses the cartographer’s mind, making he or she think they can mould this limited space into a comprehensible totality.

The cartographer imagines, by abstracting away the details, a landscape can be made understandable and stopped in time. But this understanding is an illusion. The individual details of a mountain – as any climber, mountaineer or hiker can attest – are of near-infinite complexity. Overhangs, ledges, icefalls, chimneys, crevasses, moraines, streams, torrents and other myriad landforms serve to complicate what from far away may seem simple. Indeed, a map can never tell the complete story of whatever place it tries to embrace.

It is not just the details of the landscape that test our confidence in maps, but also the passage of time. In the past, by the time a map was printed and found its way into the hands of its user it was, at least partially, out of date. Changing landforms, new roads, the boundaries of cities and suburbs, all were developing and evolving according to unknown and barely describable laws while the editors and presses minted these supposedly ‘new and accurate’ maps. In those less globally connected, and perhaps more slowly developing, times, this obsolescence was accepted and barely noticeable. Not so today.

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The field of cartography has changed and evolved, along with the world that it so desperately tries to represent. Invented, at least in its modern western incarnation, by the second-century Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy, maps, either written by hand or printed on a press, had stayed pretty much the same for most of their long history. Starting with the idea of a map projection, which is a mathematical construction that allows mapmakers to keep track of the inaccuracies introduced into maps by the mere act of trying to attend a spherical Earth on to a piece of paper, mapmakers through the centuries got better and better at measuring the surface of the earth.

Cartography has always been part science and part artistic expression, and it has continually benefited from the invention of new surveying tools and technologies. From the times of the pharaohs in Egypt, who mapped farmland after the seasonal flooding of the Nile, until the mid-20th century, mapmakers painstakingly measured the earth in much the same way, walking and triangulating across the landscape. At the same time as their methods of measuring became more trustworthy as new and more sophisticated instruments were introduced, new methods of map reproduction also came into being, employing the most up-to-date printing technologies of their times, from medieval carved woodblocks and 19th-century lithographs to 20th-century steel and copper engravings. And even though maps became much more accurate Ptolemy himself would have understood how to create most of the maps that cartographers produced up until about the middle of the last century, when computers and satellites suddenly became part of the map-maker’s toolbox.

The study and science of cartography underwent perhaps their most profound advancements in the second half of the 20th century. These changes, brought about by the science and technology developed in the fighting of two world wars, the advent of computers, the discovery of newer and faster mathematical and computational algorithms, the birth of satellite imagery and the widespread use of the Global Positioning System (GPS), created a new definition of a map, beyond anything that any of the great cartographers of even the near past could have imagined.

GPS in particular, whose multiple satellites orbit the Earth with clocks accurate enough to measure differences in geographical position at the speed of light and whose receivers are found in our smartphones and in our cars, placed accurate way finding ability in everyone’s hands. This technology has radically altered the way we find our way in the world.

In the 21st century cartographers have become more imaginative and have stretched the definition of a map beyond simple representations of distances on the Earth’s surface. In many cases maps today seek to convey information that, while spatially displayed, is not primarily concerned with Euclidean distance or with mapping something that exists as a material object. The visualisation of large data sets showing information such as the number of Twitter messages, Facebook friends or the London Underground system are more concerned with connectivity than they are with distance. What they display are the shape and form of a network of social and infrastructure interactions instead of the usual ideas of nearness and farness. These kinds of maps reveal the extent of our connectivity and give us a sense that now we are not separated by oceans and continents, but only by a few mouse clicks.

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The maps that we live with now are very different and much more varied from the traditional forms that existed for centuries, and not just because they are mostly digital. The idea that cartography is strictly confined to the mapping of the features and objects started to unravel in the 1970s with the advent of the digital age. The internet has also vastly increased the number of participants who engage regularly in what used to be a highly specialised discipline; now anyone with a laptop, tablet or smartphone has access to largely free and open-source software, as well as mapping capability through Google Earth, Mapbox and other providers. This access has allowed mapmaking to expand its creative boundaries as cartographers create new applications employing spatial data of numerous kinds.

Many of today’s most creative cartographers are involved in the expanding field of online ‘crisis mapping’. These mapmakers, who are from all walks of life and operate as volunteers, update maps and identify damaged areas most in need of aid just after natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes. According to the US Department of State, which has embraced these online humanitarian geographers in more than 15 major disasters, the strategy of crowd-sourced mapping has been extremely effective. The department cites Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines in November 2013, as an example; within 36 hours volunteers and crisis mappers from around the world had mapped and identified more than 30,000 buildings as having been either damaged or destroyed.

Thirty years ago the historian of cartography Brian Harley predicted maps would become any “graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes or events in the human world”, and the newest form of cartography is trying to visualise objects that have no material existence, such as internet searches or social-media information flows. These maps represent a form of mapmaking that deals with extremely large amounts of information and data and are made by cartographers trying to understand dynamic systems that are unstable and rapidly changing. Maps like these are not static, like paper maps of the past, and are blurring the lines between what counts as a map and Big Data visualisation.

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In trying to represent the complexities of important realtime events like natural disasters, wars and revolutions, mapmakers have embraced time as a mapping variable and are creating moving, interactive and instantaneously updated visualisations that could never have been created on a piece of paper. The data points that make up many of these maps do not come from geographic surveys or measurements made in the field but rather from the movement of satellites, drones or the information stored in every cellphone.

Tracking human mobility in the detail required to study epidemics is a technology that has only recently become possible. For example, during the recent Ebola epidemic in west Africa cartographers at Flowminder, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving public health, used the location data from more than 150,000 mobile phones to model and build the network of travel patterns and habits of the population across a region encompassing Senegal, Guinea and Liberia.

All maps are part science, part artistic design and the idea of what counts as a map is complex. No matter what its incarnation, however, it is undoubtedly the cartographic image – intricate and abstract – that is the locus of its lasting appeal, whether printed on paper of moving across a computer screen. It is the choice of colour, form, thematic emphasis and a whole host of other design elements that give maps their infinite variety and deep creative potential, and reveals the fourth dimension of cartography, that found in the minds of cartographers themselves.

Today whatever is near or far, whatever is connected or separated, whatever exists in the material or natural world, and increasingly whatever is linked by the flow of bits and bytes through fibre-optic cables or crosses between cellphone towers at the speed of light, can be mapped. Paper maps were the tools that helped travellers of the past explore their less connected and less globalised world. Like it or not, it is only with the tools found in the digital realm that we can continue to explore and understand ours.