The New Geographers

3 min read

”The territory no longer precedes the map.” --Jean Baudrillard

Mapmaking seems like a quaint art that ought to have died off at the turn of the millennium, if not before. Yes, things change--the Czechs and the Slovaks part company; Burma becomes Myanmar, and Bombay becomes Mumbai; the Aral Sea shrinks to a quarter of the size it was 50 years ago. Major events all, but mere tweaks in the mapping world.

I actually have no idea whether analog maps are bombing, but I am certain that digital maps are booming, and they’re generating tons of new words and phrases as a result. But digital two-dimensional representations of the world, also known as Web maps , are only the beginning. Such services as Google Maps, MapQuest, and Yahoo Maps are redefining how we look at--and get around in--the world. They provide so-called base maps as starting points for more detailed map mashups , which plot the locations of user-generated content, such as apartment rentals, weather forecasts, traffic data, and photos. You can now buy digital cameras that come with builtâ''in Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers that note the exact longi­tude and latitude of each picture, data that are readable by map services. This is called neogeography , and it has become absurdly easy thanks to such annotation services as Platial (”The People’s Atlas”) and the annotation features built into Google Maps and others. Neogeographers annotate maps to create their own ground truth , that is to say, the world as they see it--their autobiogeographies . These geo enthusiasts may also engage in collaborative annotation , in which a number of people add geotags to a single map. (If they geotag a location on a Platial map, the location is said to have been platialized .) The combination of all available base maps and geotagged public maps is sometimes called the networked atlas , the geo ecosystem or, more commonly, the geoweb .

It’s not just neocartographers who are making newfangled map worlds ; companies are also automating the process. For example, there is software available that can analyze the text of, say, a book, extract the place names mentioned in the text, and then plot them on a map, a function known as geoparsing . As maps become searchable according to such geodata as ZIP codes and latitude and longitude coordinates, users can tailor their searches to specific places, a process called geosniffing . Companies also offer interactive programs that display a series of digital maps annotated with local lore, facts, and historical data, creating a new genre called mapâ''based storytelling , or geostorytelling . We’re starting to see location-aware devices such as GPS-enabled mobile phones running services that display annotated maps of the user’s current location, a technology combination known as mobile augmented reality [see ” Is It Live or Is It AR?IEEE Spectrum, August]. People also play geocaching , a scavenger hunt in which participants receive the geographical coordinates of a cache of items and then use GPS and other such geotools to locate them.

The three-dimensional equivalent of the digital map is the digital globe , which incorporates photos and 3-D modeling technologies to produce an immersive environment for exploring nearly any part of the world. That virtual globe is most famously found in Google Earth, but Microsoft’s Virtual Earth is similar. As with 2-D digital maps, 3-D digital globes can be tagged by users and by automated means, a process known as geocoding . Photography plays a big part in these virtual worlds, particularly satellite and aerial imagery, although both Google Earth and Virtual Earth are starting to incorporate ground images as well, a competition sometimes called the 3â''D data arms race . (And not without controversy: the first Google Earth ground images included embarrassing shots of people hanging around outside strip clubs.) The images are augmented with geospecific simulations of actual sites, in contrast to generic, or geotypical , environments.

In some cases, markers are not to the virtual world but to the real world itself--buildings, bridges, and equipment. Companies attach sensor chips to these and countless other objects to watch over them, but we’re starting to see the first signs of technology that blends sensor data with 3-D maps, a technique called reality mining . The U.S. military hopes to capitalize on such data to generate what it calls geoint (geographical intelligence).

If there’s a killer app for geospatial data it may be virtual tourism , which lets people ”travel” to any part of the world without the agony of airline food. Virtual tourism is also called virtual globetrotting and Google sightseeing .

With all this digital mapmaking activity, you can see that maps and atlases printed on (scoff!) paper are so last century. The new arts of neogeography and neocartography are thriving in their stead, and they will soon be annotating, augmenting, tagging, coding, and parsing your reality.

About the Author

Paul McFedries is a technical and language writer with more than 40 books to his credit. He also runs Word Spy, a Web site and mailing list that tracks new words and phrases (

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