Back when your humble correspondent was in graduate school, in a time we called "the early 90s," there was great optimism in the land about the potential of computer-based cartography to revolutionize the depiction of geographic data. If we had known the internet was coming, we would have absolutely wet ourselves. Looking back now, though, I am pretty disappointed by how few well-designed and innovative maps I have seen online. Online maps are almost always either (1) a static .jpg of a paper map that has been fed through a scanner, or (2) a static .jpg that has been saved from a cartography software package, usually with all the graphics options still set to their inappropriate defaults. Boring!
A shining light in this gloom was 2005's Google Maps, probably the most useful web gadget ever built. We have become quickly jaded to its much-copied grab-and-drag interface and its high-quality satellite imagery, but it has only been two years since these features were downright ~dazzling~. Remember that?
Now, it is a cool thing about Google Maps that it can be customized with specific data sets to create thematic location maps -- a map of the top-rated high schools in the U.S., to pick a mildly obnoxious example. It's a lovely tool, but it is so available and easy to use that it has had a stultifying effect on the development of any competing way of presenting geographic information on the internet. This is a real shame, because as much as Google Maps is quite lovely for route-finding, it truly stinks as a means of presenting geographic information. And yet, the volume of Google-based map sites out there could fill a blog of its own. In fact, it does: the Cool Google Maps blog (with its unfortunate slogan, "Who knew maps could be fun?").
But I digress. This isn't about Google Maps, this is about some innovative online mapping that makes us visualize the world in new and exciting ways. Let's move straight on to the first category:
Practical Map Application
If you happen to live in beautiful Portland, Oregon, City of Roses, you might well already know about our winner in the Practical Map Application category. Portland Maps is an online database of public records kept on all real estate parcels within the Portland city limits. Sounds kind of complicated -- is it easy to use? Oh My God, yes.
The minimal front page asks you to enter a street address. Go ahead. Enter a street address. If you entered mine, you can learn in a matter of minutes how many square feet we've got, the size of our mortgage, how much we pay in property taxes, how many bathrooms we've got, and where our kids would go to school, if we had children. You can check out what kind of crimes happen in the neighborhood, wave at any nearby registered sex offenders, check out the nearest bus stops, explore where the sewage lines take whatever we flush down the toilet, and examine the changes we've made in the landscaping over several years of aerial photographs. It's all extremely invasive, but good fun as long as everyone plays nice.
Need an address to try? Well you sure the hell can't have mine if you don't have it already. Here's one that's close to where I used to live: 1222 NE 22nd. That will give you an apartment building, so you won't be poking into any one individual's private business. I certainly wouldn't condone THAT.
Pseudo-Practical Map Application
The Pseudo-Practical Map Application category is for maps that seem like they are all business, but when you really get down to it they are basically just toys. Our winner in this category, Ben Fry's zipdecode, is an elegantly overbuilt utility for determining the location of any ZIP Code in the lower 48 states. You don't need it. But you'll like playing with it.
Symbolic Cartographic Animation
The ability to show a dynamic animated surface is the big advantage that computer mapping has over conventional paper maps. Lamentably, most online maps don't take this advantage, and those that do usually do so in painfully lame fashion. Not so Breathing Earth. With its massively excellent visual design, creepy little soundtrack, and running count of global mortality, this map hammers home its point about the global environment with precision and poise. It also wins the special achievement award for "Map Most Likely to Give You Nightmares."
Live Action Cartographic Animation
The winner in this category is another false utility, beautifully presenting information that no one outside of an aircraft control tower has any conceivable legitimate use for. And yet the AirportMonitor live action map of air traffic at and around Los Angeles International Airport is a stunning display of real-time data made accessible and available over the internet. And I find it endlessly fascinating. Really. I stare at it like other people stare at goldfish.
Finally, the highest use of either maps or the internet: art. Perversely, the award goes to simple images with no interactive or animated elements. They are, however, images that knock my socks off. Brooklyn artist Nina Katchadourian's Geographic Pathologies and World Map rock my cartographic world. They'll rock yours, too.
I learned about some of these sites through Doug Greenfield's excellent "Map of the Week" listserv. Want to be on his list? Shoot me your Email; I'll hook you up.
L&TofM5K welcomes reader comments, suggestions, second guessing, and submissions towards future Awards for Excellence in Online Cartography.