Mapmaking, 21st Century-Style

Researcher D.R. Fraser Taylor brings multi-sensory cartography online

A Carleton University researcher is bringing mapmaking into the 21st century. Today’s popular map and geographic information programs like Google Earth and navigation satellite positioning systems known as the Global Positioning System (GPS) use maps as interactive tools to deliver large amounts of information — from driving directions and the locations of assets and people, to informing of the spread of illness in a community.  SSHRC-funded researcher D.R. Fraser Taylor has begun groundbreaking work that takes these concepts even further. He’s the first scholar to research both this phenomenon — which he has dubbed “cybercartography” — and its role in our new economy.

Using software developed at the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre in Ottawa, Taylor is leading a group of researchers who are creating dynamic, interactive map systems that anyone with an Internet connection can enter content into. Since this tool doesn’t require advanced technical skill, individuals or communities can input information in their own language and in a variety of forms such as voice input, story telling, video, photographs, documents and text.

These new, multimedia and multi-sensory “living atlases” are available online and present information in a wide variety of formats in addition to traditional maps. As part of his research, Taylor is also examining how these devices are applied and  what value they provide in today’s modern economy.

“These days, location is absolutely key to a whole range of activities. When you look at digital databases, you could argue that at least 80 per cent of them have a spatial component,” says Taylor. “Therefore, organizing things through their location is an important way of understanding what is going on in a particular area.”

As it reveals patterns, relationships and trends not always apparent in the data itself, this new way of mapping holds wide commercialization potential, adds Taylor. This work is the first of its kind and is of interest to numerous sectors in our rapidly evolving modern economy.

“Cybercartography can be applied to any topic you wish, as an academic analysis, a business pitch, or simply a way of allowing people to express their own stories in a number of ways,” says Taylor.

“It allows different narratives to be told without privileging one over the other. With video clips, texts, and ideas coming from people ranging from scientists and government officials to members of a particular community, the user of a cybercartographic atlas can see the complexity of the situation, as well as a series of different answers, each with its own validity.”

What is also exciting about cybercartography is its accessibility to users with different styles of learning and comprehension, says Taylor.

“Some people learn verbally, others by reading text, while others prefer graphs and images.  These atlases present information in a variety of different formats so people can choose what form they want to get it in. Cybercartography is difficult to describe, but when people see it they immediately latch on and have responded very positively to it.”

So far, the centre has produced a Cybercartographic Atlas of Antarctica and a cybercartographic product on Canada's Trade with the World. Taylor and his researchers are also working with Inuit communities in Nunavut and aboriginal communities in the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence area, who are using the “living atlases” to pass on knowledge and information in ways tailored to their cultures.