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Narrative Cartography
Sarah Rich, 2 Jul 07
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Last week Wired ran two articles about the wonders that have befallen us since the advent (and through the evolution) of Google Earth and Google Maps.

A feature by Evan Ratliff explores the exploding population of citizen cartographers.

Even after the advent of commercial satellite and aerial photography, the ability to make maps remained largely in the hands of specialists. Now, suddenly, mapmaking power is within the grasp of a 12-year-old.
A host of collaborative annotation projects have appeared — not to mention tens of thousands of personal map mashups — that plot text, links, data, and even sounds onto every available blank space on the digital globe. It's become a sprawling, networked atlas — a "geoweb" that's expanding so quickly its outer edges are impossible to pin down.
We're all mapmakers now, which means geography has entered the complex free-for-all of the information age, where ever-more-sophisticated technology is better able to reflect the world's rich, chaotic complexity.

The article points out, though, that no map is ever objective and that governments in many countries have tried to censor the software. But while the subjectivity of a map can be an indication of harmful intentions, as in the early days of Western Europeans' conquests into territory they intended to take over, it can also be a means of exposing masked injustice and forcing transparency, as in the case of Google Earth's Crisis of Darfur project, "a downloadable set of layers for Google Earth which combines high-resolution satellite images of Darfur with photographs and first-hand accounts of the genocide currently underway in the region. Users of Google's 3-D world atlas can zoom in on burned-out Sudanese villages, read the stories of the victims and see stunning aerial shots of massive refugee camps in Eastern Chad."

Google Earth and Google Maps are not only giving way to a new global library of location-based citizen narratives, they are raising awareness and creating life-saving tools to address problems where witnesses and relief are often scarce.


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As usual, there are 2 sides to every coin.
Maps can indeed be used intentionally to distort reality (Mark Monmonier's aptly titled book "How to lie with maps" was required reading in one of my cartography classes), and this power is often used.
On the other hand, this sudden popularity of mapping can have a huge impact on people and enables small groups of people to raise awareness for their cause like in the example you mention in your article and the case described in a recent article on Google Lat Long Blog.
There's a bit of a gray zone where people map incorrectly without bad intentions. This will be a problem we have to face in the near future. Until now, cartography was done almost exclusively by trained professionals who knew about perception, implications and limitations. The explosion of available cartographic data today has no quality measure and users need to be aware that not everything is true just because they've seen it on a Google Map!

Posted by: Jo on 4 Jul 07



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