Old maps show new directions

A terrific Web site brings a huge collection of antique maps to the Web, but offers much more than the past
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Do not read this article unless you have three hours spare immediately afterwards. At OSCON, publisher O'Reilly's Open Source Convention at Portland, Oregon last week, participants -- attendees is far too passive a noun -- enjoyed the usual mix of the unusual subjects. Lots of technical discussions segued passionately into political and economic debates from the front line of open source: criminally under-reported by the mainstream media, the conference was exhaustively blogged by touch-typing wirelessly networked stars like Jay Lyman, Robert Kaye and Danny O'Brien.

One of the keynotes that stirred the most enthusiasm was given by David Rumsey, president of mapping company Cartography Associates and a true obsessive. After collecting so many maps that even he had to stop, he contemplated donating them to a university for public access -- but the Internet came to seem a better bet. He started the project more than four years ago: it was good then, but with broadband, fast computers and great graphics now widely available it's turning into something greater.

The David Rumsey Map Collection is an online storehouse like no other. It has more than 10,000 antique maps available for free access, which would be reason enough for applause, but it goes a long way beyond that. By combining very powerful Java browser software and a great deal of thoughtfulness, the site lets you do things with the maps that would be impracticable or impossible with the real things. You can collate collections of themed images, overlay different maps with differing levels of translucency, even take a flat map and project it over a relief map of the same area. Perhaps most excitingly, you can annotate a map with your own links and data, which other people can see and follow. It is an exact cultural analogue to the ideas of open source: here is something good, please do something new that makes it better.

Even for non-cartographers, this goes far beyond a mere appreciation of aesthetics. The next big step for the Internet -- or whatever we choose to call the global mix of processors, real-time sensors and mobile communications links into which today's Net is evolving -- will be to tie itself solidly to the real world. Objects not ideas, things not data, will become the basic working items of the new network -- and the way you link the real world to that of ideas is through maps.

I have no doubt that at some point in the future there will be a universal global atlas online which will be our chosen portal between the virtual and the real. There is so much data desperate to be seen, so many services that are geographically linked, and it's such a natural way to work that the push towards a true virtual world will be irresistible. You can already see how this works with some of the online mapping companies such as streetmap.com; local services link in and you can turn on aerial photographs to compare them to the map itself. But this is a pale foreshadowing of what I want -- where is the weather overlay, where the traffic congestion and public transport conditions, the route finding? And where's the much promised and never arriving world of commercial geographic information systems (GIS) showing shops, cashpoints, cinemas -- all live, with their special offers and accessibility detailed?

This hasn't happened, because it's as far beyond any one commercial company to create as was the Internet itself. But with open-source ideas, people can add their ideas to the mix as they wish. Those with something to show will be able to show it -- fancy mapping CO2 emissions to sea level predictions, and those predictions to a map of London? The opportunities for new services built on an open atlas will be huge, once nobody has to worry about building the basic infrastructure.

Of course, there's the endless headache of rights and intellectual property to worry about -- but you don't have to go back too far to find a new place from which to begin. There is no way that the great libraries and collections of the world will be able to resist the pull to digitise every item they own and put the results online. The David Rumsey Map Collection shows just a glimpse of what can be done -- and, if we're allowed to mix and match our tools and techniques, what will be done. But don't take my word for it -- go and look for yourself. In my experience and that of others, you'll be gone for some time.

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