Web Cartography, or Putting Things on Top of Other Things

Here is an inconsequential post of what’s on my mind at this moment.

Remember red dot fever? That epidemic was back in the early days of web mapping APIs, when most of what was possible (and what was popular) was to throw a bunch of points on top of Google Maps and the like. Now the web still has plenty of pushpin-clogged maps, but web mapping has come a long way since those early days only a few years ago. Full-fledged thematic mapping, customized base maps, complex interactivity, and more are now possible.

Still, the essence of common web cartography has remained this: stuff on top of other stuff. Specifically, it boils down to base map plus thematic or location data. It’s just better now that we have so much more control over each level of stuff. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing; modern cartography always amounts to the combination of different data sources, albeit with better integration than the separate layers of web mashups.

It seems, though, that the control over each level of the map has now reached the point where there needn’t be a distinction between base map and thematic data. Will the web map of the 2000s go the way of the Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things?

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  1. In terms of visual hierarchy, there should always be a distinction between base map and thematic data (figure / ground). But perhaps that’s what you are alluding to? Increased control of these elements allows the web map author to actually create a visual hierarchy and not just layer data over a stock base.

    The downside to more control is of course more opportunity to create a truly awful looking map! But in general it’s a good thing.

    David Medeiros
    9 June 2011 @ 4:16pm

  2. Thanks, it’s good to point out that there always does need to be that visual hierarchy. That is indeed along the lines of what I was thinking about. The typical map for a while was just layers data over a stock base map that wasn’t designed for it like you say. Usually that means an overly complex street map like Google Maps. Besides new abilities to achieve a better hierarchy with customizations, another example I should have mentioned was GeoCommons with their Acetate map layers. While the model is still generic base map plus thematic layers, it’s a nice improvement because the base maps are simple and actually intended for thematic maps, and there are separate road and place name layers that can sit on top of other layers.

    As for more opportunity for terrible maps, well, at least it gives us cartographers something to complain about when we meet for drinks!

    Andy Woodruff
    9 June 2011 @ 5:04pm

  3. The material of this recent workshop on web cartography (http://www.nateko.lu.se/eurosdr/) may certainly be of interest regarding this thought. Thanks for keeping Monty’s python philosophy alive !

    and lowe
    10 June 2011 @ 9:16am