Future of Paper Maps

What is the Future of Paper Maps?

Cartography Tools
The ancient tools of cartography made for accurate maps that are reliable and useful. Brad Goodell/Getty Images

In a world driven by digital communication, information is no longer shared primarily through paper and postage. Books and letters are frequently generated and transmitted through the computer, as are maps. With the rise of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning Systems (GPS), the use of traditional paper maps is on a certain decline.

History of Cartography and the Paper Map

Paper maps have been created and used since the development of basic geographic principles.
The foundation of geographic analysis was established by Claudius Ptolemy during the second century CE in his Tetrabiblos. He created numerous world maps, regional maps of varying scale, and fathered the concept of our modern-day atlas. Through its highly topographic nature, Ptolemy’s work transcended time, and greatly influenced Renaissance scholars’ perception of the Earth. His cartography dominated European mapmaking between the 15th and 16th centuries.

By the late 16th century, cosmographer and topographer Gerhard Mercator introduced the Mercator map. The first globe was presented in 1541, and in 1569 the first Mercator world map was published. Using a conformal projection, it represented the Earth as accurately as possible for its time. Meanwhile, land surveying was pioneered in India’s Akbar Empire. A procedure for gathering information on area and land use was developed, in which statistics and land revenue figures were mapped on paper.

The years following the Renaissance Era witnessed groundbreaking cartographic achievement. In 1675, the establishment of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England marked the prime meridian at Greenwich, our current longitudinal standard. In 1687, Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica on gravitation supported the decrease of latitudinal distance when moving away from the equator, and suggested the slight flattening of Earth at the poles.

Similar advances made world maps astonishingly accurate.

Aerial photography made its debut during the mid-1800s, in which land surveying was done from the sky. Aerial photography set the stage for remote sensing and advanced cartographic technique. These basic principles laid the foundation for cartography, modern day paper maps, and digital mapmaking.

The Development of GIS and GPS

Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, the paper map was the layman’s navigational tool of choice. It was accurate and reliable. During the latter half of the 20th century, the progression of paper maps came to a slow. At the same time, advances in technology sparked a human reliance on all things digital, notably data processing and communication.

During the 1960s, mapping software development began with Howard Fisher. Under Fisher, the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis was established. From there, GIS and automated mapping systems grew, and associated databases evolved. In 1968, the Environmental Science Research Institute (ESRI) was founded as a private consulting group. Their research on cartographic software tools and data structure revolutionized modern mapping, and they continue to set precedent in the GIS industry.

In 1970, instruments like Skylab enabled the collection of information about Earth on a fixed schedule. Data were constantly measured and updated, one of the primary advantages of GIS and GPS. The Landsat Program was established during this time, a series of satellite missions managed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Landsat obtained high resolution data at a global scale. Ever since, we’ve had an improved understanding of Earth’s dynamic surface, and man’s environmental impact.

Space based navigation and positioning systems were designed during the 1970s as well. The U.S. Department of Defense utilized GPS primarily for military purposes. Available for civilian use in the 1980s, GPS provide signals for the tracking of movement anywhere on the planet.

GPS systems are not affected by topography or weather, making them reliable tools for navigation. Today, the IE Market Research Corporation expects a 51.3% global market increase for GPS products by 2014.

Digital Mapmaking and the Decline of Traditional Cartography

As a result of public reliance on digital navigation systems, traditional cartography jobs are being downsized, and in many cases eliminated. For example, the California State Automobile Association (CSAA) produced its last paper map of highways in 2008. Since 1909, the had created their own maps and distributed them free to members. A near century later, CSAA had eliminated their cartography team and produce maps only through the AAA national headquarters in Florida. For organizations like the CSAA, mapmaking is now seen as an unnecessary expense. Although the CSAA is no longer investing in traditional cartography, they realize the importance of providing paper maps, and will continue to do so. According to their spokesperson Jenny Mack, “free maps are one of our most popular member benefits”.

A downside to the outsourcing of cartographic skill is the lack of regional knowledge. In the case of the CSAA, their original cartographic team personally surveyed local roads and intersections. The accuracy of survey and cartography from thousands of miles away is questionable. In fact, studies show that paper maps are more accurate than GPS navigation systems. In an experiment done at the University of Tokyo, participants traveled on foot using either a paper map or GPS device. Those using the GPS paused frequently, traveled greater distances, and took longer to get to their destination. Paper map users were more successful.

While digital maps are helpful in getting from "Point A" to "Point B," they lack topographic details and cultural landmarks, among other details. Paper maps show “the big picture”, whereas navigation systems only show direct routes and immediate surroundings. These shortages can lead to geographic illiteracy and dissipate our sense of direction.

Electronic navigation systems are advantageous, especially when driving. However, these advantages are limited, and the best navigational tool to use depends on the situation. Paper maps are simple and informative, yet advanced navigational tools such as Google Maps and GPS are useful as well. Henry Poirot, president of the International Map Trade Association says there is a niche for both digital and paper maps. Paper maps are often used as backup for drivers. He says, “The more people use GPS, the more they realize the importance of the paper product”.

The Future of Paper Maps

Are paper maps in danger of becoming obsolete? Just as e-mail and e-books are convenient and reliable, we have yet to see the death of libraries, bookstores, and the postal service. In reality, this is highly unlikely. These ventures are losing profit to alternatives, but they simply cannot be replaced. GIS and GPS have made data acquisition and road navigation more convenient, but they do not equate unfolding a map and learning from it. In fact, they would not exist without the contributions of historic scholars. Paper maps and traditional cartography have been rivaled by technology, but they will never be matched.