How Digital Mapping is Changing Your World
Friday, June 22nd, 2012
by AJ Plunkett
These days, finding that cool new restaurant, or a clear road to avoid congested highways, is often just a click away.
Personal navigation help is available almost anywhere — whether your vehicle has GPS, or your smart phone sports the latest mapping app, or you just remember to fire up Google, Yahoo or MapQuest before you leave your home or office.
But the universe of digital mapping means more than most people realize; it can determine when and where you get improved utility service, it can help people get healthier, or find new clues into historic events. (Think we know everything about the Salem witch trials? Think again.)
For years, digital maps were little more helpful than a road atlas is to today’s teenager. (Okay, maybe they were a bit more useful than that.)
It’s not that no one saw the need for highly visual, interactive maps. Maps, whether on paper or computer, are graphical by nature and offer lots of information. But for years, the complexity of translating those features into a digital format were held hostage to limits in data storage and poor computer displays. Innovations in computer design, combined with the use of advanced global positioning systems to collect field data — that can include pinpoint navigation and high-resolution topography — have opened up a revolution in digital mapping.
For instance, the United Nations has put out a lengthy handbook for governments large and small on ways to use census data, geographic information systems, and digital mapping applications in their communities.
Among other suggestions:
- Governments can combine census data with information on transportation infrastructure to better allocate new educational resources, or combine household demographics on income with neighborhood infrastructure conditions to better identify areas of poverty that need special help.
- Rural and urban planners can plot growth patterns over existing private and public water sources, as well as gas, electricity and telecommunications utilities, to plan a community’s future needs for services.
- Emergency planners can use population data to better plan evacuation routes in the event of a natural or manmade disaster, or indentify possible concerns in the event of an infectious disease crisis.
Getting Creative with Data
The creativity of academics and business entrepreneurs in the use of digital maps seems to know no bounds. Take into account these recent revelations:
- Google has been using radar, laser sensors and cameras along with programmed map to plot road features, lane markers, traffic signs, speed limits, terrain – anything and everything along a highway – in the event that one day, autonomous, self-driving vehicles are allowed on mainstream roadways.
- NASA Space Grant interns used global-positioning system information, satellite imagery and digital mapping to create mobile phone applications for a “stealth health” project, targeting youth ages 12-18. The applications, used in conjunction with social networking sites to “take and share geo-referenced photographs and make thematic maps to address real-world problems they’d like to solve,” helped promote physical activity in an otherwise sedentary group.
- Using digital mapping and high-resolution imagery, two companies are partnering to identify every commercial and residential rooftop in the United States that could be used to produce solar energy.
- One historian, curious why the Salem witch trials of 1692 took on such a fever pitch and spread so widely when other witch accusations had remained contained, plotted the 25 communities involved on a digital map. By looking at the map and adding other historic information, Benjamin Ray was able to see the hysteria as “a kind of epidemic,” and isolate very specific causes, such as a relationship between church membership and the accusers, and a judicial breakdown in the trial process.
- And earlier this month, the mayor of New York City unveiled a new initiative that not only maps hundreds of high-tech firms that have job openings, but offers a “visual guide to investors and coworking/incubator spaces.”
As computer and satellite imaging technology continues to advance, there’s no telling what that map on your phone or computer tablet may be able to show you someday. Maybe not just where the jobs are, but how that future boss likes his or her gourmet coffee?
Hmmm, where’s that guide to investors …
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.