Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The new cartography of Google Maps Part 2

A few days ago I wrote up some initial thoughts about the new Google maps redesign in a previous blog.  After receiving my invite to try it out I've had a chance to explore a little and here are a few more the spirit that Google wanted feedback and in response to a brief Twitter conversation with my friend and geo-colleague Ed Parsons (Google's Geospatial Technologist)

Let's start with the practical...

Having spent years fine tuning their map from a pretty industrial affair to something quite beautiful, the design has taken a few steps back. Yes, the subtle, clean and muted colours are an improvement but the overall look and feel is of a crowded dsystopia. There is no way that any generically designed topographic basemap can do a good job of being equally useful for all combinations of individual, personalized content slapped across the top and it shows.  Technically, Google are pushing the envelope and as I said previously, this is to be applauded...but in so doing they've lost something of the clarity and balance that they'd imbued in their map.

I opened the map and hoped to be greeted with an array of all the things I expected to see where I live. Google knows where I go in this town. It knows what my local searches have been (or it claims to given this is one of the ways map content is chosen for me). So if this is a personalised map of my town then surely it should reflect my own mental map. Instead I got a map devoid of detail except locations of all the churches in Redlands (of which there are quite a few). Now anyone that knows me will soon realize this is not a map I would find useful unless I want to find a route that avoids passing the many alternative residences of god (think Damien in The Omen approaching Guildford Cathedral). So where is all my personalised content? No idea...and, apparently, nor have Google. So the map is actually devoid of any practical value until I start using it to search and then we hit another problem...

I searched for local Mexican restaurants knowing full well which in the local area are my favorites. Google presented a range of options, all symbolised and sized based on other people's preferences. Hang on...where's my favorite? It doesn't even appear as anything other than a small insignificant dot. I don't like the way that symbol size is now used to order thematic content and connotate importance. The use of size is critical in cartography to order things; to make sense of visual signs being thrown at us in parallel so our eyes and brain can form a partial picture of relative value in series.This is a vital graphical approach when a map is made objectively but not when the ordering is based on pseudo-analysis. The answer I got was not the one I wanted so validating Google's attempt at creating a personalized thematic map against my own mental map shows a serious flaw...the bigger problem being I now do not trust the map for any other place. The baseline for personalized content has to be that the map as a minimum meets what you expect in a familiar area...if it doesn't then you lose trust in the product and when that happens it becomes useless. Objectivity in cartography as a mechanism to ensure consistency across a map in terms of selection, omission and graphical treatment just died. Everyone's maps are different and everyone's maps will be wrong in different ways and to different extents.

I feel that some of the slick, ease of use that Google had developed has also been lost. It's slow, it's quite clunky to control. While uniting Maps, Earth and Streetview is probably a good thing the transition between them is often quite disorientating and needs some work. A lot of stuff is happening and my brain at least found it difficult to keep up...and I spend most of every day working with maps so I'm attuned to them. Pity my mother who is just going to get lost.

There's also technical issues and after eradicating most of the imagery rendering problems that caused so many guffaws early on...they are back! And there I was thinking Apple had stolen the idea for hilarious image drapes...seems instead of suing Apple for breach of hilarity, Google have just decided to step back into the game. Let's see how quickly they can work these errors out because it took several years first time round. Take the hybrid 3D for instance and after you've got bast the rendering gaffes, you get inconsistent labelling (2D/3D), labels that appear and disappear behind buildings randomly and overprinted vector detail (particularly roads) that just doesn't match up any more. As one of my former lecturer's might have commented.."it looks like it's been drawn with a bull's c*ck". Probably harsh but they've certainly lost much of the finesse they had seemingly worked hard to build.

The UI has gone from a clean, simple version with intuitive controls to a new design where the default appears to maximize screen space with controls. This is always a fine balance...give people what they need where they need it but try and make it blend into the design. now the tools are dominant. The map recedes. The search box is particularly (unsurprisingly) dominant now the map is nothing more than a canvas for search. Search results are presented on the map in a pseudo-structured way.

That's a brief look at some here's the conceptual...

This is a revolutionary, not evolutionary, map. It's personalized thematic mapping but on an industrial scale. I said before that objectivity in cartography just died and it's been pointed out that many maps owe far more to subjectivity than objectivity. That may be true but it doesn't hold for a well designed map made by a cartographer whose role is to try to get as close to objectivity as possible to serve a defined user group. Nowhere in my cartographic education did anyone tell me to make the map how I want and sod the end user. My job was to make a map based on what I researched the user needs to be; and what those who were going to use the maps told me they needed to use the map for. So have Google killed objective cartography...killed cartography? I guess the argument is they are meeting the needs of each and every one of us (but that only works if the map works...see above). I think there's some really interesting work to be done in developing a framework that does support personalized cartography but I'm not convinced the approach taken with the new Google Maps is it.

This is more of a cartographic's abdicating responsibility to make decisions about map content and leaving it up to algorithms and advertising. So the thematic content is placed according to your Google identity (which for me, apparently, is all about needing to find salvation as my colleague wittingly suggested) and those who pay to promote their business. That isn't personalized's propogandist mapping and now we're into a whole new ball park. I once made a map based entirely on subversive needs. The map was wrong in so many ways but everyone that looked at it thought it was right in so many ways. It did the job it was designed to do but it's possibly the most intentionally incorrect piece of work I've ever made but whomever let the truth get in the way of a good story? It was an experiment in hoodwinking and giving people what they thought they wanted rather than an objective view of the theme being mapped. It was consumed without question. No-one thought to query the reality; they accepted the view I'd presented. In our world of democratized mapping more and more people have the power and scope to make maps to tell whatever stories they want. I've said before that I feel this has led to a deterioration in quality and you really have to search hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is a tougher problem for people who have no reason not to believe the map they are looking at; no reason to question the apparant impartiality of what they are seeing; people who unwittingly consume the map without even considering they could be seeing a wholly subjective view.  There is a real need to encourage people to make maps as objectively as possible so as not to distort the landscape and truth and so we reduce the need for people to mistrust what they consume. They may be altruistic ideals and maybe we're past the point of objectivity in cartography but I still feel they are important guiding principles. Unfortunately, now everyone's favorite map is morphing to tell a whole new slew of lies we may very well have just tipped past the point of return.


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