September 4, 2008

Maps old and new

Filed under: maps, travel — Tags: , — podtourz @ 5:01 pm

I’ve just written a piece for in-flight magazine Velocity on the way digital mapping is affecting our view of the city. It’s interesting – because we can now map in real time, so we can map flows, not just stasis.

That means we can now map, for instance, San Francisco’s nightlife – where is everyone going? We can map the city as the sum of its citizens’ movements, creating a picture like a long exposure photo of car light trails.

And it may mean  that maps are becoming more specialised. More useful if you are interested in a particular thing  – but perhaps less generally useful. That reflects some of the comments I’ve heard in media circles about how media are becoming more specialised,  more targeted, and there are fewer and fewer media providing a common agora and common content for everyone. Society is pulling apart, becoming fragmented, and we see that in digital maps as well as in the media.

There’s an eloquent piece about maps in the San Francisco Chronicle. I’m not an apologist for ink-on-paper – I was one of the early web heads, on the internet in the days when Compuserve gave you email addresses like 100541.3656@compuserve.com (I can still remember mine!), CSS hadn’t been invented, and there were no graphics on web pages. But what’s alarming is that although digital mapping can do so much, the real repositories of geographical knowledge (Ordnance Survey, the IGN in France) haven’t made the transition to digital – and digital mappers aren’t producing high quality. Googlemaps is great for navigating a housing estate – and rubbish at showing you trig points or contour lines.

John Flinn points out that the Ordnance Survey map is a repository not just of geographical information, but of history. Barns, village names, field boundaries, different types of woodland reflecting different styles of forestry development, Roman roads and deserted medieval villages. Read a good map and you’ll find yourself travelling in time as well as space. (And I had one OS map that really was a Tardis. It was bigger on the inside than the outside, and once unfolded, I could never, ever get it folded back into its cardboard spine…)

I’d love to see some digital mappers incorporating this kind of historical information into their work. In fact, you could quite easily create something like one of my very favourite maps, a marvellous and very detailed map of Roman Britain . Even better, with digital, you could roll over from Roman to early medieval Britain and watch the changes in population distribution,  while seeing the continuity of many of the trade routes over time…


February 21, 2008

Tube maps redefined

Filed under: london, maps, railways — Tags: , , — podtourz @ 8:07 pm

The straight lines and elegance of the London tube maps has often been admired. Clean lines – like Eric Gill’s typography and Edwin Lutyens’ architecture; simple, manly, clean, all the values of a world fit for heroes (and colonialists).

But we’re living in a more rainbow coloured age – one that doesn’t necessarily respect logic and manliness, but prefers the right-brain,  the creative, the feminine. We might prefer flow to rules, synthesis to taxonomy. Beck’s map is lovely but perhaps it’s time for a rethink.

And to my great joy I find someone has been doing that rethinking and come up with a wonderful map that throws its tentacles in wild abandon to the outer rearches of Metroland like some mad outer space sea anemone  looking for David Tennant… Glorious, isn’t it? I particularly love the not quite heart shaped finial on the eastern end of the Central Line, and the way the centre of London comes out not as a ring, a doughnut, or a rough rectangle, but as a squashed and wavy irregular form which reminds me of a prehistoric earthwork or a puddle of viscous liquid.

Elsewhere the splendid Max Roberts, designer of this intriguing new map, shows the accurate (in its day) tube map produced by London Transport in the 1930s and 1940s. What I find really lovely about it is that it shows the way the railway lines relate to watercourses, parks and forests – the manmade and the natural in relationship to each other. You never get that idea from the standard tube maps, which see the actual fabric of London and its boroughs as an irrelevance.

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