Urban Mapping Gives a Vintage Printing Technique a High-Tech Revival

By David Wagman

Some New Yorkers read on the subway.Others sleep.Ian White spent his time studying the subway map and hit on an idea that has become a best-selling tourist map.The map has won four major design awards and pushed the limits of a 100-year-old publishing technology.In the process, White has created what he refers to as a "poor man's GIS."

White, who is 34, launched his subway-conceived company called Urban Mapping in 2001 and set about marrying elements of GIS with stunning design.The result is a hand-held map of lower Manhattan, which contains multiple layers of geographic information and carries a retail price of about $18.

The product may appear to be a conventional folding map, but it has a decidedly high-tech design edge.After all, the Manhattan Dynamap offers travelers a way to use digital quality geographic information without the need to tote electronic equipment.For many people, it's their first introduction to GIS.And Dynamap is turning heads in facilities mapping and homeland protection applications.

"People still want to touch paper," White says, explaining that his "paper" map is actually built on a thin polymer substrate; plastic sheeting with advanced optical properties patent pending to Urban Mapping."This technology straddles the divide between the digital and the tactile in a way that gives people comfort."

You've seen a cousin of Urban Mapping's technology before.Remember the "blinky" cards in Cracker Jack or at the bottom of a cereal box? Hold the card one way and Babe Ruth cocks his baseball bat.Tilt the card and the Babe swings for the fences.Two separate layers of information that change depending on how you hold the card.

Now consider Urban Mapping's 21st century riff on this concept.

Each Manhattan tourist map contains 100 plastic coated lenses per inch. Under each tiny lens lie three separate images containing geographic data.These data layers are sliced and stacked on top of one another making each slice just 1/300th of an inch wide.That's small enough for the Dynamap to play subtle tricks on a viewer's eye.The viewer thinks she sees multiple layers of information, almost like a hologram.Hold the map at one angle and New York's subway system emerges.Hold it at another and the city's neighborhoods appear.Hold it at a third angle and see the city's street grid.(Try it yourself by mousing over the accompanying simulation.)

One design rule that White insisted on was that the layers shouldn't abruptly turn "on" and "off" like a traditional blinky card.Instead, he wanted the layers to fade in and out of view as the map was tilted. This would let viewers study the subway layer but also see an image of the street grid or the neighborhood map.

Removing the Extraneous
Although the map measures 9 x 18 inches when open, its three layers can hold an enormous amount of information.That's where White donned his designer's hat.

Rather than cram the map full of data points and detail, he considered his market and their information needs, then worked to remove extraneous details.

For example, White assumed that with a retail price near the top end of the tourist map-market (to further distance the product from traditional tourist maps), his Manhattan product would appeal to seasoned, upscale travelers with an eye for design.Such travelers probably would have booked a hotel room in advance.So White eliminated the dozens of dots that represent hotels on other maps.

Likewise you won't find many references to on and off ramps leading to bridges, tunnels and expressways.Highway details would only detract from more important information.White figured his customers would arrive by air and get around by foot and subway.

So White didn't scrimp when it came to depicting New York's subway system.Urban Mapping's designers created a detailed subway map layer virtually from scratch after they found most New York City subway maps were stylized representations at best.White wanted to accurately portray the underground network so his users could pinpoint subway entrances.

He also chose not to cover the map with historical landmarks and major buildings.Instead, the map represents a relative handful of Manhattan landmarks.These serve as visual reference markers for travelers.A visitor may come up from a subway station and look around to locate, say, the Empire State Building.She then uses this visual reference to orient herself on the map.

Urban 'DNA'

White considers subtle differences in what he calls "urban DNA" as he develops other city maps.

In Washington, DC, for example, taxi fare zones are an important local feature.Ride in a DC cab and the meter doesn't necessarily run. Instead, fares are based on travel within a zone or across multiple zones.Depicting those zones will be an important layer of information for Urban Mapping's Washington product.

In Seattle, mass transit is a relatively less important tourist concern.Not so the city's topography with its hills and lakes.Urban Mapping's Seattle map will depict major landforms on one of its layers.

Urban Mapping's initial market was the tourist industry, but other applications are in development.

For example, power outages following a storm or disaster can render laptop-based GIS systems inoperable, at least temporarily.As a backup system to bridge any loss of power, White envisions Dynamap providing emergency responders with layers of geographic information such as critical utility infrastructure, public buildings, hospitals and major industrial facilities.One tragedy of September 11 was the realization that first responders lacked a common map of facilities and infrastructure to coordinate response and rescue.Incorporating multiple data sets into a single map could create just such a map, making it easier for emergency responders and utility crews to render assistance.

Dynamap* technology also can depict changes over time.This makes it possible for a utility to depict, say, new service connections and related infrastructure improvements over time.From an environmental standpoint, a toxic spill that threatens a municipal water supply likewise can be mapped; the spill's movement depicted along with water well locations and population centers.

"People don't always want to sit down with a computer" to look at geographic information, White says.Urban Mapping's high-tech adaptation of a century-old novelty card printing technique may provide one answer.
*Dynamap is a trademark owned by Geographic Data Technology.

Published Sunday, April 3rd, 2005

Written by David Wagman

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