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Cartography’s New Golden Age

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA – Noé Diakubama, an emigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo who now lives in Paris, is one of this century’s intrepid pioneers. Using online mapmaking tools, he created the first map of his village, Mbandaka, which he and his wife have modified more than 100,000 times since 2009. Noé literally put Mbandaka – and the people who live there – on the map.

Noé is not the only such pioneer. There is a vast and growing community of online mapmakers creating useful, accessible maps of lesser-known areas – and transforming people’s lives in the process.

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During the Age of Exploration, which extended from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, adventurers like Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and James Cook embarked on dangerous journeys to distant lands, from New Zealand to Newfoundland, drawing detailed charts of their voyages. By advancing geographic knowledge, they broadened people’s worldview, enhanced trade, and helped to usher in the Industrial Revolution.

Today, people like Noé are spearheading a second golden age of cartography, which promises to bring equally significant economic and social benefits. Indeed, accurate maps break down geographic barriers, empowering individuals to reach their desired destinations, enabling businesses to reach consumers anywhere, and enriching people’s outlooks.

The Internet is transforming the way maps are made, enabling ordinary people – dubbed “citizen cartographers” – to work alongside intrepid adventurers and professional geographers. These cartographers – whose only common characteristic is Internet access – are embracing the opportunity to depict the places that they know and love, whether to help their neighbors get around or to give faraway people a glimpse of their local environments.

Using online tools like Google Map Maker, they are contributing to the shared goal of building a digital map of the world. Some even host “mapping parties,” at which communities gather around computers, in schoolyards or church halls, to add layers of detail that extend beyond topography. By including human elements, such as popular cafés or local walking trails, they create comprehensive, useful tools for others, and enhance their understanding of their own community.

Digital maps can be as dynamic as the communities that they depict. While paper maps can accurately portray static features like rivers and mountains, they cannot easily be updated when new buildings are constructed, roads are rerouted, or new restaurants open. By contrast, digital maps can be modified instantly, keeping locals apprised of developments in their area and helping visitors to feel like natives in unfamiliar places.

Similarly, a digital map can be tailored to an individual’s interests or needs. A keen cyclist might want a map showing bicycle paths, including information about the terrain. But a tourist might prefer a map that highlights specific attractions or indicates public-transport links. Such customization leads to many millions of versions of the world – all of them accurate.

Digital mapping technology is having the most profound impact on the world’s most remote and undeveloped regions. In Africa, for example, road coverage on Google Maps increased from 20% in 2008 to 75% last year, while the number of towns and villages for which detailed maps are available grew by more than 1,000%. This has not only facilitated trade and transport, but also translates into faster response times for emergency services, saving thousands of lives each year.

In fact, modern tools like maps and satellite navigation contribute to annual savings of up to 3.5 billion liters of gasoline and more than one billion hours of travel time. As a result, farmers are better able to get their goods to market before they perish, and to build more efficient irrigation systems, which save the global agricultural industry $8-22 billion annually.

The mapping movement’s growing momentum promises to result in the accurate and comprehensive representation of almost every inch of the world, including road data, photos, and business listings. This will create even more opportunities for economic growth, improve access to health care and other services, contribute to social development, and broaden – both figuratively and literally – people’s worldview.

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To advance the world’s geographic knowledge, explorers used to have to head out to sea, enduring inclement weather and debilitating disease, unsure of where they were going – or whether they would ever return home. While today’s online cartographers do not face the same risks, they, too, are embarking on a journey into the unknown in search of knowledge, excitement, and better lives.

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