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Truth in maps

October 15, 2012 1 comment

There’s a saying that goes something along the lines of …’Whoever wins the war gets to write the history’.  Perhaps a similar saying could be applied to map making … ‘Whoever makes the map gets to interpret the location‘.

A map, paper or digital, is a representation of the Earth’s surface. That representation is an interpretation of the location, based on a particular perspective. Although a great deal of modern map making is automated, a certain amount of cartographic interpretation is still involved. Recent years have also seen a huge increase in the volume of citizen-generated mapping, freely available to anyone with an internet connection. Different mapping algorithms, cartographers, or citizen map makers may choose to emphasise certain features at the expense of others, introducing a degree of bias in the final product.

In a recent article for the BBC, Why modern maps put everyone at the centre of the world, Simon Garfield observes that “…  new maps are gridded by technicians and pixel masters, who may be more concerned with screen-loading speeds than the absence on a map of certain parts of, say, Manchester or Chicago.”

A map is a version of a location and like versions of history, some are more reliable than others. As end users, few of us can go check for ourselves, so we have to rely on the map producers to not only minimize the bias, but also document the manner in which the data was collected so we can decide for ourselves which version suits our requirements best.