How do I make great interactive, digital maps?

We’ve been asked that question many times and Cartography 2.0 is our answer. Here, we’ve distill what we know into an open, online resource and share our experiences making digital and web-based maps. Of course, it soon became clear while the question was simple, the answer was really complex and needs a team of experts to answer.

Why we need a new approach

From what we could see, there are at least five basic problems that are encountered when publishing material about emerging mapping technology:

(1) SPEED: The world of Web-based mapping is evolving at light speed and textbooks are at least 2 or 3 years out-of-date by the time they reach students. That is a lifetime online (e.g., Google Maps is only 4 years old!) and rapidly emerging areas like location-based services and crowd sourcing—which are profoundly re-shaping and expanding our notion of ‘mapping’—are terms that weren’t even coined when today’s textbooks were being written. No doubt, the next big thing(s) are happening now, as you read this.

(2) LEARNING DEMANDS ‘LIVE’ EXAMPLES: Static screen captures of animated and interactive maps are a very poor substitute for the real thing. Imagine trying to share the joy of using Google Earth with two or three black-and-white screen captures? It is critical that people can get their hands on real working examples if they want to learn how to make great dynamic maps and understand how people use them. In the classroom, we assign URLs like an English teacher assigns novels; to become an expert in a field you have to immerse yourself in the works of that field. A CD-ROM insert in a textbook separates content from examples and is just as old as the book itself. The Web is “in the wild” and we have to venture into it to understand it (fellow cartographer Rob Edsall has been saying this for years).

(3) BUILDING TWO-WAY LEARNING: Most of the mapping projects we’ve been involved with require input from a handful of people with a wide array of domain expertise. Ensuring that we tap into the knowledge based of this diverse group is essential for complete success of the project, but often is simply not feasible. What is needed with Cartography 2.0, then, is a way to facilitate an interactive learning community where folks post questions, comments, and links in response to our own contributions (i.e., a community where everyone is allowed to interact with each other). This idea is nothing new in online education and these kinds of ‘learning communities’ are at the very heart of the Web 2.0 ethic.

In both subtle and apparent ways, our university classrooms are already two-way learning communities. Despite our best efforts to stay on top of things, we have found that our students are routinely ahead of us on emerging concepts and technologies. In this way, our students act to keep us current, while we act to synthesize this input and integrate the state-of-the-art into extant frameworks, removing from our lecture notes what is now outdated. We expect a similar reciprocity with the learning community implemented in Cartography 2.0, where everyone plays the role of both teacher and student.

(4) CONSTANT UPDATES: The great thing about online publishing is that material can be constantly updated and revised as the world of mapping moves forward and outward. There are now sophisticated technologies for identifying what is new on the Web. Many power Web users spending much of their time online in a content reader that stitches together numerous RSS feeds (i.e., real-time updates) from previously identified sources of interest, rather than actually seeking out new sources of information. This is a primary reason why Wikipedia is the most commonly referenced resource for encyclopedic knowledge: it is hands down the most current. While Wikipedia may not always be the most accurate resource—and is undeniably used as a battle ground for competing ideologies with misinformation purposefully posted—it is definitely the most current resource for quickly changing fields. We hope that Cartography 2.0 can act as a similar resource for subjects cartographic. As new applications, strategies, and theories are released, they can be immediately disseminated to the readership. While this initial pass may not be complete or accurate from a textbook perspective, these rough edges can be softened over time through active discussion and iterative content updates.

(5) EXPENSIVE: We firmly believe (as do many) that the era of the $150 textbook is coming to an end. While this is sad for our friends working in publishing houses, it is a boon for authors who now have others means for reaching—and indeed, creating—their audience. Authors are able to eliminate much of the overhead (and editorial red-tape) that consumes that $150 price tag.

Digital publishing is a boon for readers too, as they are now able to find and access content more easily and also embed content into a larger web of ideas (e.g., stumble upon, Digg, del.icio.us). Simply put, removing the financial barrier means that more people can access educational material about dynamic mapping, which not only means that more people can make dynamic maps, but that more people can construct great dynamic maps that better serve the needs of the targeted user audience. This, in turn, will generate a larger group of people who can contribute to Cartography 2.0, (hopefully) generating a positive feedback loop

Have a look around and let us know what you think. New material is added to the site continuously, so please subscribe to our RSS feed. Our goal is to continue to bring in contributors and have the site grow over time far beyond these initial topics and articles. Cheers!