Thursday, May 16, 2013

Why the new Google Maps is the most honest form of cartography


At its annual developer conference yesterday (May 15), Google announced a complete overhaul of its maps. Among other things, changes include a cleaner interface, integrated Google Earth, and maps that learn as you use them. If you search for a curry, it will suggest other South Asian restaurants. If you’re friends with lots of people who visit libraries, it may direct you to book stores. With all the data Google collects across its various services, it has a pretty good idea of who you are. Now it will use that information in its maps.

That probably sounds pretty creepy in a “Google’s using my data and telling me what it thinks I want again” sort of way. But it is the opposite of insidious. It is honest. And it fixes the one thing that has always been wrong with maps.

Maps are generally seen as neutral objects, like chemistry formulae or mathematical equations. But they are about as impartial as journalism. It is the illusion of neutrality that gives a map its power. Every aspect of a map, from its scale and the area covered (which are related) to the features it leaves out is a deliberate choice on the part of the agency making it. The most obvious example is deciding where to put a border. But even maps that present physical features, shipping routes or climatic conditions involve decisions on the part of the cartographer. Maps present a point of view.

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