Since the dawn of the digital cartography era, digital mapping technology has been exponentially enhanced – today browsing the earth is at your fingertips through incredibly innovative programs (for instance, Google Earth, Yahoo's SmartView or MSN Virtual Earth).
Digital Maps – What They Are
Digital maps are part of geographic information systems (GIS) made possible through a bunch of the 24 man-made satellites orbiting the earth. These satellites in space are frequently taking high quality pictures of each region on the earth's surface and simultaneously sending them to GIS hubs (large, high tech collection centers) across the globe. These GIS hubs immediately process the images and generate computer generated maps which then are supplied to websites or programs that make the information accessible to any internet user. It may sound simple, but the process is quite complex in reality and requires huge amounts of data transfer and coordination.
If you thought that GIS is just about map-making, then think again. It is actually a lot more intensive than map-making. It involves organization of data or information about anything that happens at a particular geographic location, including but not limited to “real-estate development, military operations, logging, farming, oil drilling” (Technology Review, June 2005) – it is virtually endless. It enables biologists to study the effect of environment on the endangerment of land animals, environmentalists to study the causes of pollution, police investigators to study the level of crime in a given demography, in a given period of time and how it has effected emigration in the area, emergency workers to predict fallout-related fatalities from a hypothetical nuclear attack, medical researchers to examine the links between contaminated drinking water and a cancer incident – again, the list is never-ending.
Software such as Google Earth or Google Maps not only provides detailed aerial and satellite maps, high-end aesthetics, local search functions but also hackability. Maps can easily be modified by programmers to display their own data on top of Google maps – a feature that creates a whole new sense of custom mapping . This is characterized by adding “custom-layers” of geographical or demographical data, annotations, and user drawn illustrations on the digital map itself, which can be seen by any user with access to the Internet. In fact, not long ago a whole community of freelance programmers has been allocated to this task by Google. They all have one motto that they strive to achieve – to make map-related information on any geographic location in the world accessible to any user of the Internet.
Sources & Links
"Killer Maps". Technology Review, October 2005.
"Do Maps Have Morales?". Technology Review, June 2005