Collaborative Mapping Drives a New Age of Exploration

From the 15th Century through the 18th Century, The Age of Exploration was a period of unprecedented discovery.  Driven by economics, politics, religion, fame, or other less tangible factors, intrepid explorers went off to far corners of the earth, often without maps to guide them.  They came back with tall tales of new places, new species, new tribes—and new maps.

The Age of Exploration gave way to the Industrial Revolution, which itself gave way to the Information Age as more jobs moved from production to service.  Geographic information system (GIS) technologies—computer-based applications for viewing and managing information about geographic places, analyzing spatial relationships, and modeling spatial processes—were born during this period, and by the end of the 20th century had become ubiquitous across government and industry as indispensable decision support tools.  In the 21st century, the Age of Information is giving way to the Age of Collaboration as the Internet provides a platform to connect people and information to solve ever-more complex problems.  Exploration is being redefined, and a new emphasis has been placed on the value of the geographic information being created and shared by GIS professionals.

The old adage “information is power” is historically thought of as “he who has the information, has the power.”   In the Collaboration Age, information is democratized, transferring the power from the few who “own” the information to larger groups or the population at large.  This is certainly true in the realm of geospatial technology, where we are seeing a revolution in the ways that maps and mapped information are created, used, and shared.

The New Explorers

Exploration used to mean mapping the unknown.  The type of information that used to be cloaked in mystery and only accessible by a few people through much difficulty is now easily accessible by literally billions of people.  Thanks to this new era of data availability and easy-to-use technology, today’s explorers take information from multiple sources to look at well-known areas in entirely new ways.  Widespread access to maps and well-informed awareness of the world around us means this new generation of explorers is immense, smart, creative, and innovative—precisely the prescription we need for a planet in peril.

This new age of exploration has three primary features:

  • A vast virtual library of geospatial information is readily available over the Web.
  • A new generation of exploration and visualization tools lets people leverage this virtual library quickly and easily.
  • The large community of geospatial professionals has the skills to develop custom mapping applications (or “mash-ups”) and perform sophisticated spatial analysis when the solution to a problem demands more than simple exploration or visualization.

Working together or working with data or mash-ups that others have already built and shared, now anyone can use geographic information to explore the world around them.