Has Everything Been Mapped Already?

November 20, 2023

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I met a geography student the other day (Hi Manny!) and we bonded over the eye-roll-worthy comments that we hear sometimes when sharing about our field. You know the ones. There’s no need for me to repeat them. But, he reminded me of the classic, “hasn’t everything been mapped already?”

Imagine if we stopped mapping. No new maps. No updating existing maps. Imagine if we never mapped anything newly discovered or changed below, at, or above the surface of the earth or related to its inhabitants. Don’t worry, I’m not proposing a strike (we can’t stop ourselves from mapping anyway). I just do wonder how quickly the frustration over outdated geospatial information would roar, and if this would trigger a collective light bulb moment, ”Oh, yeah, mapping is a continuous activity.”

I suppose you know that you’ve done your job well and your technology has been widely adopted when people don’t even notice it anymore. When people interact with your work unthinkingly, as a matter of daily life, and not just an accepted but expected resource at their disposal. As if a new road segment’s attributes are imbued into the atmosphere as the concrete pours from the ready-mix truck, coalescing into digital formats absorbed into our systems - a photosynthesis equivalent of sorts for spatial data generation.

We know that people often accept maps as fact, which is why a bad map is so problematic. But it’s as if some folks accept mapping as an automated societal process that just happens, with little human intervention and effort. They use maps every day and yet seem surprised that people still ‘do’ mapping. The disconnect perplexes me.

But as mappers (or geonauts, etc.) I think we have a similar disconnect about our own work and contributions. Have you ever been bummed out that you have missed the age of big mapping discoveries or advancements? Do you ever bemoan that you aren’t the first to map something? Like how you can’t be a Marie Tharp mapping the ocean floor for the first time? Or an Alexander von Humboldt, creating and mapping the first isotherms? While it is different, this is a related misperception to the comment, “Everything is mapped already.” We may sometimes feel there’s nothing new to discover, nothing new to map. We are just making geospatial data iterations. We are just cogs in the cartographic churn.

You’re wrong. I guarantee you have mapped something no one else has. You ARE a geospatial pioneer. There, I said it. Now to get you to believe it.

We think of discoverers, adventurers, or pioneers as pocketed-khaki-vest-clad explorers, wandering into heavy vegetation with dramatic mountain backdrops, miles and miles from civilization. But that’s not the only way to be a pioneer, particularly a geospatial pioneer. We also chart new paths, map new discoveries and infrastructure, and generate new spatial ways to see things, but often from the comfort of our offices, homes, or home offices.

There’s a scale of pioneering, of ingenuity, and know that you register on it. Big or small, old or new, there are things that haven’t been mapped, that haven’t been updated with important changes, or haven’t yet been put into map form or a particular map style. There doesn’t have to be a new continent left to discover and chart to reach geospatial pioneer status.

What have you newly mapped or pioneered in mapping? Think about it. It could be adding a new bend in the road, plotting new utility features to an existing network, updating impervious surface area or tree canopy calculations from recent imagery, crowdsourcing community data on a cultural practice, or taking tabular data and putting it into map form for the first time. It could be adding one point to the map for the bike rack nearest your home. I did that. I was teaching myself how to use Field Papers for Open Street Map and I went outside and newly mapped the nearest bike rack. It could be adjusting Google’s misplaced location for your home address. My partner (a nonprofessional mapper) did that, requesting Google to update the placement of my parents’ rural home address (to their actual house rather than the barn half mile up the road).

Sure, these are small things, singular points. But we wouldn’t have the wealth of geospatial data that we do without the contributions and amendments of you, your colleagues, and community members. Each new or updated feature or attribute strengthens and extends the use of networks of data from which calculations, decisions, and understanding are made. You do that. Like me and my bike rack. Like my partner and the updated address location (that proved crucial during an emergency only weeks later). Whether for work or for fun, all our mapping contributes to the whole. We only have this wealth of data thanks to this community of pioneers generating new and updated information, from an individual point to a massive point cloud. You have the power to use data and visualization to create new points of view and spark original questions about the data.

By the way, there IS plenty left to freshly map. Just consider how much of the world the seemingly pervasive Google street view has yet to reach. Think of how many moments that you’ve thought ‘surely there is already a dataset for this?’ or ‘surely there is already a map for this?’ only to discover there wasn’t? The opportunities to first map are still out there. The opportunities to first update maps with the latest changes are still out there. The opportunities to turn tabular data with a spatial component into a map are still out there. And you have the skills to do it.

You can be the first to map (and no doubt already have, many times over). You ARE a geospatial pioneer and can continue to be so. (And just another reminder, you ARE geospatial enough too.)

Yes, this has turned into a bit of a mapmaker’s peptalk. Did it work?

I’ve mapped other things too, not just a bike rack. But then again, even if it was just the bike rack, every point counts, right?


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