Posts Tagged ‘Social Sciences


Its that time of year when Geography People get to strut their stuff……

Geography Bee season is upon us, and this year was lucky enough to take part at grass roots.

Instead of just writing about maps, geo-politics and an increasingly bizarre group of place-shaped kitchen products we elected to use our time more effectively by assisting in the early rounds of the National Geographic Geography Bee at our local school, Goleta Valley Junior High.

The results were inspirational. This is the second Geo Bee we have been involved with locally in recent weeks and once again it was a delight to see kids of school age up for geography.

You can read about it here at our Maps101 blog.


Maps for the Blind: From 1837 to today.

Recently a group of representatives head to San Diego for the ESRI User Conference.

They absorbed a ton of information covering wide and varied topics in the mapping and spatial data arena. One of the main themes of the conference and a recurring one in Cartographic arenas is how we gather, process and present the amazing amounts of data now available via the internet. 3-D terrain data, publicly sourced cartographic data, Landsat imagery and collaborative imagery management are all topics that were discussed and reviewed at the event.

Using a tactile map

When creating maps for the blind, less is truly more. For a product to successfully convey spatial data it must be limited to the most vital information and avoid data ‘clutter’. This most disciplined branch of Cartography has actually been around for over 180 years and  is addressed in this recent Strange Maps article. Those with visual impairment and blindness are required to be more spatially aware than most of us as they negotiate the hazards of everyday life, but when it comes to the bigger picture cartography frequently comes up short in trying to deliver ‘the Google Maps’ experience to this audience.

In 1837 the New England Institute for the Blind published 50 copies of the ‘Atlas of the United States printed for the use of the Blind’. The maps are produced in a Braille-type print that embosses the various lines of the map for touch reading. The text was not produced in Braille (an alphabet consisting of raised dots in various configurations) but in standard Latin characters. The ocean is distinguished by horizontal cross-hatching and the major cities are identified using a key. There are 24 state maps which included numbers for latitude and longitude and illustrations for mountain ranges.

Each map is accompanied by a descriptive piece outlining points of note about the region covered, again using Latin characters as opposed to Braille.

Despite being a pioneering innovation, with such limited circulation it is difficult to regard the atlas as a major commercial success, however parallels can be drawn  with some of the innovations in contemporary cartography as we attempt to use our maps to solve very specific problems and address the difficulties of presenting complex data in a user friendly format. This atlas also represents the first instance of touch operated maps – an altogether more common attribute since the advent of the iPad.

Jump forward to today and there several approaches to providing mapping for the blind. A German project, The Look and Listen map, is attempting to crowd source data that we naturally absorb and process and adapt to as we walk down the street. For example locating street crossings that have tactile paving and sound or vibration alerts can be a vital part of safely negotiating a busy downtown. In France, researchers have used stereo cameras mounted on glasses to record and render 3D imagesthat are then translated through an electronic tactile device that instantly produces embossed maps similar to the ones Lowe produced, but with greater detail and accuracy.

Maine Map for Blind Readers

Map of Maine, S. Howe 1837. C. David Rumsey Collection

“The ability to wander around and get  lost on a map is so much better than getting lost in real life” said Josh Miele, a scientist at the Smith Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, himself blind, in an interview with NPR. The maps they have developed are printed by the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco using an automated version of Lowe’s embossing process, which enable blind people to build up a strong cognitive understanding of an area before they have visited it.

The report reveals a change in the attitudes of cognitive scientists who have long believed that blind people could never understand maps because they are visual representations of spatial concepts. While tools such as the Trekker Breeze – a GPS device that gives voice prompts regarding current locations, intersections etc offer a detailed view of immediate surroundings, tactile maps give a much broader relational view of an area. Interestingly the concept of all maps being a ‘spatial’ tool as much as a visual tool is reinforced when one considers the pros and cons of the Breeze-type device versus the Braille print version.

Smith Kettlewell have been attempting to bridge the gap with its Audio Tactile maps which include a detailed audio component activated when using a tactile map. They have produced a version for the BART stations in San Francisco including street, concourse and platform maps for each station.

Much more of the atlas can be viewed here in the David Rumsey collection.


What’s in a name?

The UGEGN (United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names) is currently meeting in Vienna, Austria in  its 26th Session.

The purpose of this meeting is to review, discuss and report on resolutions agreed by the United Nations Conferences on the Standardization of Geographical Names, which have occurred at 5 year intervals since 1959.

UN Place Names Database

The conferences are designed to move towards standardization of place names around the world, whilst protecting the cultural heritage that is behind many of them. There are many examples around the world. The UN has a team working specifically in Africa where frequent and rapid political changes have meant that many regions, cities and even countries are known by multiple names. Austria itself includes towns and cities near its Hungarian border with multiple identities to multiple cultures, including Croat, Roma and German language translations.

This can cause headaches when preparing reference materials, developing or executing disaster response, international law and even military activity.

Ultimately the hope is that each country will submit its standardized list of ‘official names’ and the UGEGN will disseminate these names internationally, including a standardized method of translation into languages which use non-roman scripts such as Arabic. Meanwhile, the recording of cultural names to preserve local heritage is another key aim. More than 400 Geographers, Linguists, Cartographers and Planners make up the group from around the world.

The results so far are manifested in the World Geographical Names Database, which contains 2600 full and short country names for 192 UN member states, 4100 names for 2970 cities with populations over 100,000, and 600 audio files to assist with pronunciation.

Given that this seems to have been a moving target since 1959 one can expect that there will be many more sessions before the job is complete……

10 brings home the gongs! was the proud recipient of three prestigious awards last night, held by the International Map Trade Association.

Garage Sale Locator Apps for iPhone, and the Bing Maps101 Explorer took silver and gold respectively in the ‘Best Use of Technology’ category at the industry’s premier event. In addition, a special award was presented to CEO Sarah Sinclair in recognition of the company’s continued support to the industry and promotion of the Association.

Garage Sale app for Iphone became an active participant in the map trade almost 20 years ago and now sells into dozens of countries worldwide. A renowned supporter of independent cartography through its ‘Map Marketplace’ program, the company’s online map store plays host to millions of visitors monthly who can purchase materials from the biggest publishers such as National Geographic to specialist map makers through its print on demand service. has continued to innovate and provides mapping solutions to the Education and Newspaper industries. In addition to retail maps,’s custom mapping division provides a range of services, including print, flash and ‘mash-ups’ with online services such as Google and Bing maps. Directory publishers, Convention and Visitor Bureaus and Educational Publishers use for their location based solutions.

“This award recognizes the hard work of so many  employees in our organization for whom mapping and geography is as much a passion as it is a daily job,” revealed Sarah Sinclair, President and CEO. “We are proud to support and promote this passion not only within but across the industry as a whole,” she continued.

Following a recently announced partnership with Bing Maps and several new iPhone apps released, the team hope to be back next year with even more innovations on display.

BIng Maps101 Explorer

The IMTA conference closes today (September 14th) in Washington DC.

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