Mapheads and Roadgeeks: The New Cartography

As maps go from paper to digital, a surprising number of amateur cartographers have arisen


When google launched its Maps service in early 2005, it didn’t include an application programming interface (API), but that didn’t stop Paul Rademacher from figuring out how to use Maps to display markers indicating available apartments in the San Francisco Bay Area. This was not only the first mashup (information created by combining data from multiple sources) but also the unofficial beginning of neogeography and neocartography.

Neogeography is the practice of combining online maps with data—such as blog posts, websites, and annotations—related to locations on those maps. It’s a subset of neocartography, also called citizen cartography, which is mapmaking as practiced by nonprofessional cartographers like Paul Rademacher and, nowadays, just about everyone else. Services such as Google Maps and OpenStreetMap, as well as the availability of massive location-based data sets, have made neogeographers of many of us. Great chunks of the population have been revealed as mapheads, people who are passionate about maps and cartography.

This cartophilia takes many forms, but one of the strangest (and hardest to pronounce) is cartocacoethes (kart-oh-kak-oh-EE-theez), the tendency to see random patterns as maps. This mouthful of a word combines the prefix carto-, “maps,” and the word cacoethes, “an itch or compulsion.” It has led to the fun disciplines of accidental cartography and found cartography, where everyday objects bear an uncanny resemblance to maps. The opposite, in a sense, is counter cartocacoethes, where maps are concealed from prying eyes by making them look like something noncartographic.

Geonerds combine their passion for maps and their topophilia (the love of landscape) into new hobbies. One of the most popular is geocaching, a type of scavenger hunt in which participants are given the geographical coordinates of a cache of items and then use their GPS devices (smartphones, nowadays) to locate the cache. Geocachers fall into a variety of categories. The megacachers are the alphas of the geocaching world because they’ve found the most caches (numbering in the thousands), while power cachers enjoy the challenge of finding as many caches as possible in a set period of time (often using power trails, paths that yield lots of caches). Extreme cachers take only the most dangerous geotrails, while puzzle cachers have to work out a riddle or similar puzzle before they can locate a cache. At the bottom of the hierarchy are the nongeocachers, who may accidentally happen upon a cache and are sometimes called muggles (because they’re the geocaching equivalent of nonwizards in the Harry Potter books). Particularly prized are virgin caches: Getting to one of these before anyone else earns the geocacher a coveted FTF (“first to find”).

Another favorite pastime of the geoworld is the confluence hunt, in which participants seek degree confluence points: locations where the latitude and longitude coordinates are perfect integers. Confluence hunters find the exact spots, snap pictures, and then upload them to the Degree Confluence Project.

Why this newfound geojoy? Perhaps it’s because maps are a built-in feature of our brains. As we find our way in the world, we construct cognitive maps, mental representations of the real world, so is it any wonder that physical and digital maps resonate with us in powerful ways? Some believe that using GPS devices prevents us from creating these cognitive maps because we let the device do all the work. We no longer ask for directions because we’re never lost, and we no longer truly experience a place because we are focused on following a line on a screen. These are serious concerns, but my own belief is that GPS-enabled devices can, if used in the right spirit, make us more likely to get lost and to experience where we are. We just have to remember to put our phones away and wander. The maps will always be there when we need them.