Revisiting Web Cartography in the United States: The Rise of User-Centered Design
Tsou, Ming-Hsiang, Cartography and Geographic Information Science
Redefining Web Cartography
The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born ... the moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses" (McLuhan 1964, p. 80). The web is the new medium of maps, changing cartographic representation from paper and desktop GIS to distributed, user-centered, mobile, and real-time geospatial information services. Web cartography is a new frontier in cartographic research transforming the design principles of map-making and the scope of map use.
Following the argument made by Plewe's 2007 paper, the recent development of web cartography research "has not been nearly as dynamic as the commercial sector" (Plewe 2007, p. 135). In the United States, only a few cartographers focus on web mapping research topics, such as web mapping protocols and standards, map application programming interfaces (APIs), mashups, performance and usability, and user-generated map contents. Many cartographers view web mapping as a technical solution rather than an academic research topic. Web cartography plays a less significant role in academics compared to other topics such as visualization, generalization, and thematic map design. For example, the ten major keywords identified by the International Cartographic Association (ICA) for the 2005 ICA brainstorming sessions did not highlight any major web mapping research topics. There is only a tiny paragraph that mentions web mapping in the ICA report (Virrantaus et al. 2009).
Most cartographers would agree that web maps are becoming more and more important in our daily lives and scientific research. The disconnect between the relatively few academic research projects in web cartography and the great popularity of web maps may be explained by the slowness of academia and the rapid changes of web technology. Web cartography has also yet to be defined in the context of "transformative" research, which "involves ideas, discoveries, or tools that radically change our understanding of an important existing scientific or engineering concept or educational practice or leads to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science, engineering, or education." (NSF 2007). Here, I propose to elevate and redefine web cartography in order to highlight its potential for transformative research.
Peterson (1997) identified two important categories of web cartography research: Internet map use (such as map types, various users, and the numbers of maps created) and Internet mapmaking (including web graphic design, file format, printing, map scale, and maps on demand). "The Internet has made possible both new forms of maps and different ways of using them and, perhaps, has created a new category of map user" (Peterson 1997, p.9). Crampton (1999) focused on user defined mapping, and defined online mapping as "the suite of tools, methods, and approaches to using, producing, and analyzing maps via the Internet, especially the World Wide Web, characterized by distributed, private, on demand, and user defined mapping." (p. 292). Both Crampton and Peterson highlighted the important role of map users in web cartography. Peterson's description emphasized the emergence of new web-based users who are quite different from traditional map users. Crampton further described the new characteristics of web map users who are granted more power and control in web mapping.
In the early development of web cartography, many researchers used various terms to describe similar concepts, such as online mapping (Crampton 1999), Internet mapping (Tsou 2003), web mapping (Haklay et al. 2008), and cybercartography (Taylor 2005). Kraak and Brown's edited book Web Cartography (2001) benchmarked web cartography research at that time. Peterson's two books, Maps and the Internet (2003) and International Perspectives on Maps and the Internet (2008) cover key research in web mapping, including user-centered design (Tsou and Curran 2008), web cartographic theories (Monmonier 2008), cartographic education (Giordano and Wisniewski 2008), and map usability and evaluation (Wachowicz et al. …