A map is a visual representation of an area – symbolic depiction highlighting relationships between elements of that space such as objects, regions, and themes. Many maps are static two-dimensional, geometrically accurate (or approximately accurate) representations of three-dimensional space, while others are dynamic or interactive, even three-dimensional. Although most commonly used to depict geography, maps may represent any space, real or imagined, without regard to context or scale; e.g. brain mapping, DNA mapping and extraterrestrial mapping.
Although the earliest maps known are of the heavens, geographic maps of territory have a very long tradition and exist from ancient times. The word “map” comes from the medieval Latin Mappa mundi, wherein mappa meant napkin or cloth and mundi the world. Thus, “map” became the shortened term referring to a two-dimensional representation of the surface of the world.
Maps have become a critical piece of our lives. Providing guidance, direction, help and more, maps now serve as an integral information source for us every day. Maps provide value to our Internet experiences, and have become essential in the mobile world.
People used to use maps so they wouldn’t get lost. But in recent years, access to the Global Positioning System and the proliferation of mobile technology have made paper-based maps almost irrelevant. Unless you’re in uncharted territory, it’s hard to get lost anymore. Basic geography is as easy as inputting an address and letting your mobile phone tell you how to get there.
And as mapping technology advances, it allows for far more than foolproof directions. Federal agencies now use geospatial data, geo-analytics and multi-layered maps for myriad purposes, including gathering intelligence, predicting disease outbreaks and sharing data pools with the public.
The allure of mapping lies in its intuitiveness. Even simple “dots on a map can be a powerful way to see trends in data,” said Josh Campbell, geographic information system architect for the Humanitarian Information Unit at the State Department. “Maps are a compressed mechanism for storytelling.”
Last year,HIU created a series of maps to track the mass migration of Syrians displaced by the country’s ongoing violence. The HIU team combined data from thousands of media and internal reports with commercial satellite imagery. Each map provided a geographical snapshot of a place. Together, they showed trends over time and revealed the areas with the most intense conflict.
That is perhaps the most important aspect of maps: They make for better decision-making. Maps gain their value in three ways:
As a way of recording and storing information
Governments, businesses, and society as large must store large quantities of information about the environment and the location of natural resources, capital assets, and people. Included are plat, parcel, and cadastral maps to record property, maps of society’s infrastructure or utilities for water, power, and telephone, and transportation, and census maps of population.
As a means of analyzing locational distributions and spatial patterns
Maps let us recognize spatial distributions and relationships and make it possible for us to visualize and hence conceptualize patterns and processes that operate through space.
As a method of presenting information and communicating findings
Maps allow us to convey information and findings that are difficult to express verbally. Maps can also be used to convince and persuade, or even propagandize.