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The future of digital mapping is a tale of two halves

The future of digital mapping is a tale of two halves
13 Sep
A revolution in digital mapmaking is underway and the implications for industry, the environment and all of humanity are huge

In 1569, the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator made a decision that changed the way we view the world. In flattening the planet onto a two dimensional surface he chose to preserve the local angular relationships of land masses with a view to making ocean navigation easier. But in doing so he had to distort the size of the land, making it bigger as it creeps closer to the poles. From that moment on, most standard maps have provided a misleading picture, one in which Africa is squashed and Greenland stretched out of all proportion.

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We may not be as aware of the individuals who make our maps today, but it would be wrong to think their age of influence is over. They might be stationed behind a monitor rather than sailing the high seas, but their innovations are proving equally revolutionary.


A self-driving car needs to know where it’s going. But if that car is going to not only transport its passengers from A-to-B, but also get them there alive, it needs to know a lot more. It needs to be able to locate every object around it – be it a lamppost, pothole or a wayward child – and it needs to make sense of that vast quantity of data in order to navigate. In short, it needs an incredibly detailed, 3D map.

The maps we use every day aren’t yet up to the job. The most popular digital maps are largely stitched together from satellite imagery (GPS) and aerial photography, supplemented by people driving around in cars snapping photos. While this is ideal for most individuals going about their business, GPS is only accurate to about five metres and that’s nowhere near good enough to keep that driverless car out of trouble. Of this generation of maps, Google reigns supreme, with over a billion users logging in and out of Google Maps each year. But Google knows that it’s time for change, and so do thousands of others.

The maps of tomorrow will come alive. Developers are responding to the challenges posed by things like autonomous vehicles by progressing towards ‘living’ maps, ones that will be constantly updated in real-time and built on data collected by video, radar and lidar (or light detection and ranging) rather than satellite imagery. Several organisations are working to attach these kind of sensors to cars or planes in order to create ultra-accurate maps that keep on regenerating.

Google MapsGoogle Maps is largely stitched together from satellite and aerial images

Of all the tools utilised by these living maps, lidar is one of the most hyped. Waymo – the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet – produces and now sells its own lidar sensors and, according to Reuters, more than $1billion in corporate and private investment has been ploughed into 50 lidar start-ups over the past three years. In concept, the technique is simple. A lidar instrument fires rapid pulses of light at a surface and measures the time they take to return to the source. In doing so it can calculate the distance between itself and the object, building up a ‘map’ of the surface it is measuring that’s usually accurate to 15 cm vertically and 40cm horizontally.

Lidar can help create slope and sunlight exposure maps of fields, enabling farmers to identify specific areas that need water or fertiliser; it can penetrate water in order to map the depth of rivers; it can even create images of particulate matter to build maps of pollution. In addition, its ability to penetrate tree cover makes it particularly valuable to environmental organisations looking to analyse the density of vegetation, so much so that in an article on its website about lidar, WWF claims that ‘remote sensing technologies are one of the most important tools for monitoring environmental change at scale’.

Most driverless cars also utilise lidar sensors (the exception is Tesla which claims to be able to do without them). But, as noted above, for autonomous vehicles to operate safely it’ll take a great deal more. They’ll need both on-board sensors and extremely detailed 3D maps of streets, signs and infrastructure which will allow them to make sense of the information their sensors are ‘seeing’. The latter still lags behind.

According to Muki Haklay, a professor of GIScience at University College London (UCL), ‘the general perception is that autonomous vehicles are decades away’. Though it might be possible for a lorry to get down a motorway without a driver pretty soon, he says it’s another thing altogether for a driverless car to navigate a city. ‘In order to make them work we’ll need to change the street dramatically, pull people away from the roads and do all sorts of things to make them safe. But, we will see cars with much more lidar integrated in them and that will allow them to gather information as they go.’

Waymo self-driving car GoogleA Waymo autonomous vehicle navigates with the help of a lidar sensor on the roof

This inclusion of lidar sensors and other video-systems within, or on top of, cars – something likely to become widespread long before their drivers let go of the wheel – will have implications far beyond the world of autonomous vehicles. Many companies know this and are looking to capitalise. The UK’s national mapping agency, the Ordnance Survey, is one such organisation. It might be best known for its paper maps of rural Britain but the OS long ago took the decision to enter the digital space. It already takes advantage of Google’s dominance by providing it with high-quality geospatial data which is fed into Google Maps. To gather this data, the agency flies an aerial photography unit around the country from March to November and supplements these images with data collected by an army of surveyors on the ground. ‘Last year we made 60 million changes to the database and the database has over 500 million unique features. So that’ll be curbs, fences, walls,’ says OS’s Keegan Williams. 

OS is now looking further ahead, or as Williams puts it: ‘There’s a world of opportunity and we are fully embracing it.’ In May, it announced the launch of trials to create a series of high-precision maps of lampposts, manholes, traffic lights and other objects on British roads. The trials will be conducted in partnership with an Intel-owned company called Mobileye and the maps are created by fitting-out vehicles with Mobileye’s 360-degree cameras. The images collected by the cameras are fed back to the OS who combine them with existing maps. The idea is that cars owned by delivery groups, utility companies and members of the public will install Mobileye cameras, constantly gathering vast amounts of data as they go about their normal business. Or, as Mobileye puts it – ‘crowd-sourced’ maps. Northumbrian Water was the first to sign-up to the project; the maps can help utility companies identify and monitor the condition of above-ground and underground assets, though this is really only the beginning.

Mobileye Ordnance Survey 1In collaboration with the OS, a Mobileye maps plots objects on the road

When it comes to turning all this data into something tangible 3D maps look set to be king. David Loescher manages the UK subsidiary of Skyline, an ex-gaming company that takes data from aerial footage and lidar sensors and ‘meshes’ it with terrain and building models to create 3D-versions of landscapes. ‘Last year, there were people doing trials making 3D models,’ says Loescher. ‘This year there are probably two or three companies already in the air collecting data to make them at a larger scale. I think within two, three years, it will turn from being something relatively unusual to something very commonplace.’

Once created, the possibilities are endless: A 3D map can allow urban planners to explore accurate visualisations of their projects; It can help mining companies look at the space both above and below the surface; and it can enable authorities rolling-out 5G to identify prime locations for essential new radio antennae. It can also be used for real-time visualisation of battle-space in conflict situations. In fact, according to Loescher, the military is currently Skyline’s largest customer.

One consideration however may prove a thorn in the side of companies such as Mobileye. With so much imagery and data being collected, what about data protection? Google already knows what it’s like to come up against privacy concerns. Its Street View feature has faced bans in several European countries due to privacy concerns and though most of these have been lifted, Google has had to make concessions, including lowering the height of its cameras in some regions. In 2018, the government of India rejected Google’s plans to include Indian cities, tourist spots, hills and rivers into the application, citing security issues. Mobileye’s T&Cs reveal that it is aware of such concerns. The terms state that the technology ‘may capture audio, video and photographs that unintentionally or incidentally capture people, for example workers in a field or pedestrians crossing a street,’ going on to state that it employs ‘technical and organisational controls to prevent information from being used improperly’.

WEBOrlando Skyline DatAirSkyline produces 3D maps of cities such as this one of Orlando by 'meshing' together data images with computer models

The issue will only become more complex, and for the companies involved, more onerous, as mapping devices are placed into consumers’ cars. Data collected regarding a driver’s habits and location could be of interest to many third parties, from car makers to insurance companies, and this will only increase public unease. As it stands, most regulatory systems around the world don’t explicitly deal with autonomous vehicles – but that’s not to say this won’t change. Lawyers and commentators are already calling for firmer legislation and regulatory guidance.


The maps of the future look set to enable large industries and urban centres to expand and modernise. They look set to help the military become more efficient and, presumably, more deadly. But what happens outside of these wealthy, industrialised worlds? From a global perspective, the story of mapping’s future is one of two halves.

Since 2009 the OS has run an accelerator programme called Geovation. The programme supports start-ups looking to use geospatial data to make positive change. One such start-up is Gather, an organisation working to pool together geospatial data regarding the location of toilets in countries where access to basic sanitation is lacking. Co-founder and director, Lindsey Noakes, explains that she was inspired to start Gather when she learnt that lack of geospatial data was the main thing preventing charitable organisations from operating effectively in this space, be it a tiny community organisation looking to secure a loan for a single toilet block and demonstrate where that block should go, or the World Bank.

‘They were all coming back to this issue of not knowing where their services were needed most,’ says Noakes. ‘We thought that there must be a map that shows you where all of the toilets in the world are, but pretty soon we found out that map doesn’t exist. Then we thought: well, what if it did? We could show where all the toilets in the world are and therefore where the need is. We could massively reduce the inequity in the distribution of resources and we could improve the efficiency of investment processes.’

WEB3Thuo Wanjiku, a member of Gather partner, the Spatial Collective, collects data for the mapping of toilets in Mathare, Kenya

Gathering geospatial data in this space is a world away from the high-tech methods employed in wealthy cities. A plethora of obstacles opens the way for innovative approaches (one team of researchers working to map food stalls in Kenya attached a camera to a giant balloon and took it for a walk round the streets). Gather’s first data-collecting pilot took place in Nairobi last year. Satellite maps were no use because the corrugated roofs of the toilets look the same as any other building. Vehicles equipped with cameras and lidar are too expensive and the basic infrastructure needed to support such technology is often lacking, whether it be a reliable internet connection, decent signal or the necessary expertise. To get around this, Gather works with community organisations such as the Spatial Collective, which trains young people in Kenya to use geospatial tools. Members walked around the area, noting GPS coordinates of toilets on a clipboard or phone and taking photos.

UCL’s Muki Haklay is another person more than aware of the challenges of working in isolated environments. He is currently pursuing a project that aims to enable non-literate communities living in forests to map their resources in order to visualise threats and stand-up for their rights. ‘For example, when a logging company is making an agreement about the forest and they’re forced to decide not to cut some trees or identify areas that are important for local communities, we’re trying to provide tools to allow that community to decide what data to collect, and then visualize the information,’ Haklay explains. He has created an app called Sapelli which facilitates this type of data collection via a simple interface which makes use of small pictures or icons. The platform periodically checks for connectivity (which is likely to be sketchy) and determines the most appropriate means by which to transmit the compressed data.

WEB1Spatial Collective’s custom-built mobile tool is also used to collect location data and descriptions of dumpsites in Mathare

Though positive about these projects, this type of work has led Haklay to view the future of mapping as replete with risks. In particular, he predicts a widening of inequality – not just between wealthy and developing countries but also between rural and urban areas more generally. The culprit, he says, is the sort of machine-learning maps described above, those built from data collected by lidar and other sensors placed on cars. ‘The same story that happened in the past with GPS will be an issue,’ he says. ‘One of the principles of all those systems is that the more cars or devices pass through an area, the more you can be confident about the information. But as you go to rural areas, poorer areas, areas with less mobile coverage, your ability to figure out your location goes down. Then the quality of the information goes down. In central London we can be quite sure that information will become very good, very fast. If we’re talking about the Highlands in Scotland, I wouldn’t trust an autonomous car not to drive me off a cliff.’

Of all the companies operating in this space it’s Google that Haklay is most concerned about. He is confident that the current king of mapping will retain its crown by buying-up smaller companies that look likely to compete and he certainly doesn’t think this is a good thing. ‘A few people on the technical team at Google have huge power over a billion people or more that are using Google Maps every day,’ he says. ‘These companies are so cash-rich, so powerful, so controlling of the environment. We need to ask the question of how they shape the world.’

Other companies operating in this space are predictably more confident in their ability to compete and thrive. There are currently thousands of innovators jostling for space as vehicles become more autonomous, companies request 3D maps and smart cities are laid over existing infrastructure. The winners of this game aren’t yet certain, but whoever they prove to be, they look set to wield more power than ever before to influence the way we view the world.


WEBJordan Hi Res image with map in the waterExplorer Jordan Wylie takes a fabric SplashMap on his ‘rowing dangerously’ adventure [Image: Stephen McGrath]
As any map-lover knows, humans retain an enduring love for the tangible. The UK’s most famous provider of road-maps, the A-Z, offer digital versions of all its products but the majority of revenue still comes from the wholesale supply of paper maps to trade customers. As for the OS, it sold 1.73 million paper maps in the 2017/18 financial year. 

Then there’s those successfully combining both utility and artistry. David Overton, once innovation manager at OS and now founder of SplashMaps is one of these people. Inspired by the fabric maps produced in their millions during World War II to help soldiers escape enemy territory, he began designing and creating fabric maps that can be worn as scarves. He believes that printed maps are still preferable for hikers and cyclists and in rural areas where digital maps often prove unreliable. Splashmaps now makes wearable maps of locations across four continents, with products in the world’s most southerly shop in Antarctica

‘There are such beautiful designs and they end up on paper, and that paper gets dumped and screwed up in the bin,’ says Overton. ‘I just think that the skill of those cartographers is so great that it deserves a better medium to sit on.’ To produce detailed maps that can work for cyclists, hikers and extreme adventurers, Overton favours using geospatial data from a range of sources including the British Antarctic Survey, Michelin Guide, Harper Collins, A-Z, Ordnance Survey and OpenStreetMap, perhaps proving that despite predictions of an unhealthy consolidation of the industry, no one company can ever offer it all.

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