Hard to believe, we have only now reached the 10th anniversary of Google Maps. As important as digital maps have become, their purpose is much the same as the printed and drawn maps that preceded them. Digital maps emerged in the 1960s with the Census Bureau’s DIME maps. These first digital maps were used for analysis of place-specific data, such as populations within census tracts or cities. Digital maps in turn led to geographic information systems (GIS) for spatial analysis. Though GIS had uses in fields like city planning, the main stimulus for digital maps came in the 1990s with the convergence of the completion of GPS infrastructure, and affordable and portable computers.
Naturally, just knowing where you are doesn’t have huge value, but if that information can be fused with a digital map, which could generate a route to the destination of your choice, or access information on the places that surround you, then you have something. This is why companies like Etak, Tele Atlas and Navteq began the painstaking process of converting satellite images, printed topographic maps and data that could only be observed with one’s eyes (such as street signs, addresses, speed limits, and turn restrictions) into digital form.
One of my projects during the 1990s was to compare the accuracy of competing digital maps. It was a tedious process, entailing two-person driving crews traveling each street. The passenger recorded all relevant information and made periodic readings with a large, costly GPS receiver. At the time, digital maps could only be accessed by complicated GIS programs which restricted their usefulness.
Since then, digital maps have grown in significance due to the advent of smartphones, a growing suite of digital-map-enabled applications, and of course Google Maps. Google has made maps friendlier to developers through its application program interfaces (APIs), which also improved the user experience for scrolling across locations from a map view.
Google has mastered the process of data capture from roadways. Rather than rely on the eyes of people in the field, sensors and cameras collect mapping data. Image-processing software extracts and geo-codes textual data, automating and enhancing map creation. And Google has incorporated overhead and street-level photographic images into maps, adding substantial value.
We will never arrive at having a perfect digital map. The work to keep mapping accurate and give it more context will be ongoing. The next challenge in digital mapping is making it work offline and creating accurate maps of the indoors. These next innovations will not be led by GPS, but by sensors, including beacons. GPS has already done the heavy lifting.