Cartography for the masses: where online maps are taking us

Geographic information, once difficult to obtain, is now overabundant and driving the way we interact with maps.

buildings Stamen

parks Stamen

The same map with layers for buildings, parks and roads, respectively. I used a watercolor background and GigaOM blue as the base of the color palette.

The same map with layers for buildings, parks and roads, respectively. Using Map Stack, I employed a watercolor background and GigaOM blue as the base of the color palette.

It took 5,000 years to transition from cave maps, anchored by place names and pictures, to a coordinate system, where a place is simply a mathematical X and Y point on a map, according to renowned data visualizer Edward Tufte.

These days, between Street View, social media and loads of geolocated content online, we’re dealing with more than we can handle. Instead of worrying about getting from point A to point B, we’re bombarded by data that can hide what we’re actually looking for.

Enter map designing for the masses.

Stamen Design, a studio in San Francisco, last week released Map Stack, a free online platform that allows users to tailor how their maps look. Users not only specify the place and type of map (buildings, parks, streets) but the way each of those maps looks: its brightness, palette, texture, opacity and more.

The program is similar to the new Google Maps, where users can search for a location and type of map, overlaying geographic, social and online data, and follows a general trend toward better map design.

However, while Google changes its designs based on the type of map one selects (for example, driving directions will move highways into focus whereas a mass transit search will cede the view to subway and bus routes), Stamen gives the user those design choices. They can make the highway bright red or send it to the background. They can bring buildings, parks, roads and satellite images to the foreground, or simply render a whole city as a washed-out pastel abstraction.

The process is much like using Photoshop—except preloaded with map data from the Open Street Maps, easier and free. And as of now it’s only available from 11 am-5 pm PT Monday-Friday.

Eric Rodenbeck, who is Stamen’s Founder, CEO and creative director, sees these design options as pragmatic as well as aesthetic.

“The amount of data is increasing all the time,” he told GigaOM. “If we don’t think about aesthetics, we’re doomed to make conclusions from that data that other people want us to make.”

Google Maps Amsterdam screenshot

Google Map of Amsterdam

As an example, Rodenbeck discussed how a map of Amsterdam could fail to capture the essence of the city.

“If you look at a map of Amsterdam on Google, it looks like a freeway around some canals,” he said. “My experience with Amsterdam has more to do with canals than freeways.” Rodenbeck likens the democratization of mapmaking to the introduction of desktop publishing in the ’90s. Publishing still needed good designers, but the program did extend the possibility of publication to many more people—and their new ideas for design.

Google Map of Amsterdam with all available data options selected.

Google Map of Amsterdam with all available data options selected.

Rodenbeck applauds the continual design improvements of Google Maps, but thinks more customizable options will lead to greater possibilities. For Rodenbeck, looking at a map is for exploring more than looking for directions. “Everyone knows what a map of their house looks like,” he said. New design “gives you a chance to reconsider places that are familiar.”

Map Stack relies on geographical information from OpenStreetMap, a wiki for cartography. The program provides its own layering design as well as layers from map design platform MapBox. The result is beautiful or ugly depending on how you make it.

Traditionally, cartographers have used an array of fonts, weights, colors and opacities to show users, at a glance, what they want to know.  State names are a different size than capitals, while hues are different for terrains and parks. The same thing happens—if to lesser mastery—online, where we can drill down on locations, spanning the top of Mount Everest to the bottom of the sea.

Google Maps, which first revolutionized the world of mapping eight years ago, has come af long way aesthetically. Look at how they’ve changed even since 2009:

New York

Google Maps of New York, 2009, 2010, 2011

New York 2013

Google Map of New York, June 2013

With the acquisition of Waze, Google will be able to leverage the startup’s realtime crowdsourced traffic updatesGoogle Maps Engine API will let developers leverage it for their own applications, combining their own data with that of Google Maps.  The data options are plentiful. Fortunately, you can easily sort for venues, directions or recommendations.

Updates to online maps both inform and react to technology. Faster processing made possible the inclusion of additional information, but it also requires the ability to turn off that flood of data and the ability to design maps that accurately reflect what it represents.

Audio interfaces and visual aids like Google Glass mean maps have escaped the 2D realm and have become immersive.  To wit: Dennis Crowley wants to use Foursquare’s location data to change the way we interact with the physical world and create something like Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map, so that you can see in realtime the locations of your friends and places you may want to visit.

maurauders map

Maps are layered upon the planes of everyday life, commanding us forward and backward. Good design will get us there. GigaOM will be featuring how good design is changing the technology industry at our RoadMap event in November in San Francisco.