Online Mapping is Not the Death Knell for Maps

Caitlin Dempsey


Mary Spence, the President of the British Cartographic Society, recently sent the geoblog world atwitter with her pronouncement that Internet mapping is responsible for removing broad strokes of history and local geography through the practice of what she referred to as ‘corporate blankwash’:

“Corporate cartographers are demolishing thousands of years of history – not to mention Britain’s remarkable geography – at a stroke by not including them on maps which millions of us now use every day. We’re in real danger of losing what makes maps so unique; giving us a feel for a place even if we’ve never been there.”

Is online mapping hurting the art of cartography?

This type of hyperbole is reminiscent of the handwringing and grand predictions that accompanied the arrival of the eBook which some pundits proclaimed would doom the printed book.  

Mary Spence furthered her criticism of commercial online mapping efforts stating in an article published on BBC News that:

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But it’s not just Google – it’s Nokia, Microsoft, maps on satellite navigation tools. It’s diluting the quality of the graphic image that we call a map.”

Ms Spence believes that the consequence will be long-term damage to future generations of map readers, because this skill is not being taught in schools and people are simply handling “geographical data”.

Ironically, she points to OpenStreetMap, a community-based online data gathering effort, as a “first step in the right direction.” 

What she fails to recognize is that online mapping, particularly efforts such as Google Maps and Yahoo! Maps, and other online mapping applications have opened up access to geographic data not previously accessible to many. 

Apparently Mary Spence is not counted among the many that have downloaded Google Earth only to spend countless hours “flying” around the globe. 

In decrying the ‘disappearance’ of historic data, she appears to not be aware of such British efforts as the Ancient Tree Hunt which is combining antique maps and online mapping to identify and protect ancient trees around the United Kingdom.

Online mapping has democratized geographic data

I would counter that the growth in popularity of online mapping has increased geographic awareness and the ability to read and decipher geographic data.

The popularity of online mapping and the increased access to geographic data has resulted in the accompaniment of a map to many news stories and reports a de facto item. 

Readers are being exposed not just to the standard plan view map but to a variety of mapping techniques as witnessed by such geographic demonstrations from the dynamic modeling of the levees breaking in New Orleans after Katrina to the much noted Wall where CNN’s John King displayed map after map along with statistics during the recent U.S. presidential primaries.

This abundance of mapping is educating viewers through the use of example on such critical mapping skills as how to understand symbology, reading legends, and understanding geographic orientation. 

In fact, a study by Habibah Hj. Lateh & Arumugam Raman of the Universiti Sains Malaysia, which tested 16 year olds in their map reading skills found that students exposed to interactive mapping outperformed those students who were exposed to static maps.


Lateh, H. H., & Raman, A. (2005). A study on the use of interactive web-based maps in the learning and teaching of geography. Malaysian Online Journal of Instructional Technology2(3), 99-105.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.