Maps: Navigation or Communication Tool?

Since we first scratched directions into the dirt, maps have been the go-to when it comes to finding an unfamiliar place or geographical location. 

But they can offer more than just an address or walking route. Beyond the directions and street names, maps can tap into our instinctive understanding of the world in a powerful way by using identifiable symbols, geographical identification and legends to keep details clear. Digital mapping technology is a generational advance in mapping. Maps are increasingly popular interfaces for navigating to information.

Visuals = Understanding

People use applications like Google or Apple maps to get from Point A to Point B, with step-by-steps. 3-D mapping differs greatly here: instead of steps, the static visual experience is of primary importance. When it comes to learning instead of following directions, static maps make it easier to absorb information. 

A good example of how visual mapping can work is the Clean Streets Initiative in Los Angeles, a program organized by the city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti. With the goal of documenting the entire city, the Bureau of Sanitation was sent out to explore all of the streets and alleys of Los Angeles – stretching to over 22,000 miles – to determine their cleanliness score. The city was then broken down into colours: streets that were clean (identified in green), somewhat clean (yellow) and not clean (red). 

Creating an easy-to-understand map meant that, without anything but a color and a code, citizens can now see and respond to the conditions in their city. For Los Angeles, it meant that officials could instantly recognize problem areas and had the ability to deploy a Clean Street Crew to where it was needed most. 

Legends = Clarity

The legend keeps a map clear of excessive detail, without limiting information. 

In San Diego, the city has used mapping to communicate its regional transportation network: cycling paths, public transportation, and streets and highways used by commuters. The city’s map is useful for sharing information like street repairs and environmental restoration projects with its citizens. 

It’s a lot of information, but current technology now allows more than just a static diagram filled with data: it enables live filtering so users see exactly what they’re looking for.

The Importance of Spatial Understanding

In the case of the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, using a map to gain a spatial understanding has gone a long way towards planning their art walking tours. With the map, it's easy for newcomers to the city to get a clear understanding – by way of the legend – of the art activities available in the community and how accessible they are by foot, bike and public transit. From playgrounds for children to green space sculptures to the Ewell Gantz mural, the distance between neighborhoods, the concentration and breadth of art contained within the city of Lancaster is now clearly visible, thanks to their informative Art Tours Map.

Unexpected Breakthroughs

While a map is certainly an ideal means of determining distance or visualizing a place, it can also be an ideal platform for collecting and overlaying information to produce new and unexpected insights. It can contain information on a multitude of services, transit systems or even natural geography. 

For example, the Grand Canyon is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United States. But there are many elements within it that are physically separated from a visitor’s primary experience. Using a map, visitors can now learn about things like national monuments, river rapids, major highways, minor roads or other areas that may be of interest but would be hard to find otherwise. 

With more than 5 million visitors each year, maps like this can provide a great overview of the many experiences the vast stretch of the Grand Canyon has to offer.

Maps for Industry and the Future

It’s easy to think of a map as something that enables us to get from the starting point to the finish line, but with the advent of technology maps have become an important communication tool for business. While there are limits on how much information a map can hold, the use of legends, color and identifiable visuals can make for a particularly effective method of translating knowledge. Maps and Global Information Systems (GIS) are gaining traction as a method of information storage and access in tourism, urban planning, disaster relief, oil and gas production, construction and many other industries.

If you’re in a fieldwork industry and have data that would be best represented on a map, let us know! We’d be happy to walk you through some of the ways project management has improved with the addition of project maps. 

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