The World of Digital Maps

In the world of digital maps, AKA digital cartography, data points are compiled and used as a template to create a map. These kinds of maps are used in a wide range of ways, from global positioning systems to social media.

From Clay to Paper to Digital Mapping

The oldest known maps are not of the land we walk on, but of the stars in the sky. The French caves of Lascaux, decorated with more than 600 wall paintings, contains a representation of part of the region’s night sky, dating to 16,500 BC. Other so-called dot maps can be found in caves in Spain, dating to 12,000 BC.

In terms of representations of earthly geographical features, the earliest known maps may be as much as 9,000 years old. These are clay tablets found in what was once Ancient Babylonia, on which are etched simple line drawings of natural landmarks—a valley, a river, and hills.

As people travelled, they explored and mapped their surroundings with whatever materials they had to hand. Clay tablets, scraps of bone or wood, and eventually, paper. Gradually, maps became more sophisticated, and more representational of their subjects, at the same time as the techniques use to record map data improved in accuracy.

It’s within this long history of paper mapping that the origins of digital cartography lie. Paper maps are useful, but they have their limitations: large and often awkward to use, they cover only a certain defined and limited area. A paper map cannot be updated without the production of an entirely new version. A paper map can be written on, at the risk of potentially obscuring important information.

Digital maps effectively solve these problems. A digital map of the entire world can be contained within one mobile phone, more detailed and more accurate than any paper map could ever be. Digital maps can be updated much more easily, and infinitely faster, with the addition of new data points. And digital maps can easily be annotated by both producers and users of the maps.

Digital Mapping and Social Media

The development of digital maps relies almost entirely on the collection and interpretation of data—and lots of it. Most of the information contained within digital maps is obtained from satellite imagery, along with data obtained from street-level work (for instance, from digital images obtained by Google’s fleet of Street View cars).

Social media has given digital mapping a new use that’s broadly relevant to even larger numbers of people. For instance, the photo app Snapchat now allows people to find their friends on what has been dubbed the Snap Map. To see friends on the Snap Map, users need only opt-in to sharing location information with one another. Users can then see where their friends are, and whether they’re walking or driving to a new location. The map is well-integrated into the Snapchat interface, and allows users to start chatting with a friend right on the map window, and to search for friends on the map to find their current location.

WhatsApp is launching the same functionality so you can share your location with friends. Unless of course you turn this off and adopt ghost mode!


Digital mapping is an extraordinarily powerful tool, as demonstrated by Facebook as part of its mission to connect people who live in areas where internet connectivity is poor or non-existent. This is the function of Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, which uses a range of digital technologies to explore and define the communities who live in those low-connectivity areas. The use of digital mapping techniques provides all kinds of essential information about what geographical features exist and how people are situated in these areas. This in turn allows planners to develop infrastructure that’s suitable for the region’s topography and population distribution.

In order to achieve this, Connectivity Lab uses data obtained from high-resolution satellite images. The images are scanned by a neural network-trained image-recognition engine, also developed by Facebook, to identify man-made structures, in order to roughly determine where people live. Then the data is merged with census counts and other data to determine human populations in discrete areas.

This kind of data has a wide range of uses, demonstrating that the value of digital mapping techniques goes far beyond the use of maps as a travel guide. The kind of data Facebook’s Connectivity Lab is generating can be of significance in such diverse projects as risk assessment for natural disasters, and in socio-economic research in countries all over the world.

Limitations of Digital Mapping

Digital mapping has a number of advantages over paper maps, but it’s by no means an infallible technology. One problem with using digital maps as navigation tools is simply that the technology you use to view those maps has limitations: in battery life, and in signal strength, for instance. A minor blip with mapping software could see your carefully-planned navigation route disappear from your map. And the small screen that you typically work with—on a mobile phone, tablet, or GPS, for instance, is not always conducive to understanding the territory you’re travelling in.

And, of course, a good portion of the world isn’t mapped, and some parts may never be. It’s just not practical or desirable to map the entire Amazon jungle, for instance. Some parts of the world will remain unexplored and uncharted by Western civilization for some time to come—and that’s a good thing.