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Web spurs map-making renaissance February 7, 2009

Posted by Bahadir Sahin in English, Haber (News).
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Claus Rinner became fascinated with map-making as a young boy. The assistant professor of geography at Ryerson University would draw maps of imaginary pirate islands with hidden bays and dramatic terrain and invented place names.

Now Rinner, a modern-day Jacques Cartier, is charting maps of a totally different kind – combining digital information and locations from around the world. Sometimes his work goes on the Internet, sometimes it is for his class and sometimes for private organizations that want data analyzed and portrayed in a way that is easy to understand.

Geographers like Rinner are part of a renaissance in map-making that is rapidly changing how we use and combine maps and data. Formally it is known as GIS – global or geographic information systems. The results, sometimes sophisticated and sometimes simple, are changing the way we see and understand the world.

“A map is mass communication in one display,” says Marcel Fortin, geographic information systems and map librarian at University of Toronto’s Robarts Library. “They are so much more than words … they are a deconstruction and reconstruction of our world in one fell swoop.”

Advances in computer software, the widespread use of GPS (or global positioning systems) and tools such as Google Maps and Google Earth have created a wellspring of interest in cartography. Anybody can view maps, complete with dazzling images, of the ocean floor or the craters of the moon online, says Rinner.

And people can easily create their own maps, spreading information faster and further.

“The technology has made the actual act of creating maps so much easier and the skill required so much more easily available,” says University of Toronto cartographer Byron Moldofsky. “You don’t have to be a draftsperson to know how to create a map any more. That’s a great thing.”

An online map of last November’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai was created almost instantaneously, showing the locations and numbers of the dead and injured.

Closer to home University of Toronto’s Fortin and others are building a historical map and database illustrating industrial sites in the Lower Don watershed from the 19th century until the mid-20th century. It is part of a PhD student’s social history project.

These maps are a far cry from those drawn of the New World by explorers like Cartier. But they may be just as groundbreaking and informative.

“I need to view the world spatially,” explains Sally Hermansen, a senior instructor at the University of British Columbia’s geography department. “From oil exports to famine, I need to see a map of a place and see the landscape to understand the topic.”

“Humans are very good at viewing and understanding pictures,” says Rinner.

This renaissance in mapping is being fuelled by the vast amount of data available on the Web, says Hermansen, with volunteers adding their own data to Google Maps.

She calls it the “democratization of cartography.”

A good example is the United Kingdom’s Open Street Map where volunteers put GPS units on their bicycles to capture all of the geographic co-ordinates of streets.

Other volunteer projects include “Fix My Street” in London, England, where citizens plot where street repairs are necessary.

Here, in the GTA, self-proclaimed “map geek” Bonnie Veno makes digitized maps of criminal behaviour and analyzes trends for Peel Regional Police. Her “hot spot” maps help determine locations of crimes as well as possible suspects.

She also uses her skills to make maps for herself and her friends who are fans of the Toronto FC soccer team.

“Mapping is a real passion for me,” says Veno. “You could never have done it if you didn’t have personal computers. Before, if you were interested in something you’d have to go to an out-of-date encyclopedia. Now with a click of a button you’re looking at the Beer Gardens in Munich, Germany, or you can map out all the different routes for where your favourite team is playing.”



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