Mapping Progress: GovPilot GIS’ Place in the Evolution of Cartography

From “garbled mass” to GovPilot’s GIS, maps continue to serve as evidence of mankind’s expanding travel options, technological triumphs and shifting priorities.

The evolution of cartography — the science or practice of map creation — is a fascinating one that tells us a lot about ourselves and our society. After all, a map reflects its maker’s knowledge, priorities and world view.

This week’s blog post examines how the map’s evolution mirrors society’s as well as GovPilot’s critical role in maintaining this pace.


The Dark Ages

As described in this Amusing Planet piece, “early maps were a garbled mass of land that bear no resemblance to the actual world.” This is most likely due to early humans’ limited travel options and preference for spiritual over earthly explanations. What early maps lack in practicality, they make up for by providing insight into ancient societies.

The earliest surviving map is one of Babylonia, carved into a stone in the 6th century BCE. Its inclusion of certain nearby cities and omission of others that were well known to Babylonians of the time leads historians to believe that the map is more of a figurative representation of the cartographer’s world than a guide for navigational purposes.

This carving depicting Babylon circa the 6th Century BCE is the world’s earliest known map.

Various societies continued to draw maps in this simplified, symbolic fashion until Eratosthenes, a cartography pioneer from Cyrene, what is modern-day Libya, debuted a series of world maps in the 2nd century BCE.His are the first maps to incorporate parallels and meridians — features that do much to dispel the belief that early man could not conceive of a spherical Earth.

The Age of Exploration

By the 15th century, modes of travel had advanced to allow cartographers to gain firsthand knowledge of an area’s layout, terrain and neighboring districts before drawing a definitive model. During this era, Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe, Leif Ericson became the first European to set foot on American soil and other notable figures set sail to faraway lands to discover new goods and trade routes. Depicting bodies of water, political boundaries and other details relevant to merchants and traders, Age of Exploration maps reflect society’s shift in focus from the spiritual to the mercantile.

Though real world exploration shaped cartography and vice versa, Age of Exploration maps were not without inaccuracies. One of the most glaring surrounded California.It all started in 1622, when a Dutch atlas was published depicting California separate from the North American mainland. Despite some debate, by the 1640s, most of Europe’s major cartographers were publishing maps showing California as an island. This misconception persisted for more than a century.

Early maps perpetuated the myth that California is an island for over a century.

Over time, knowledge of the area increased and evidence to the contrary made its way back to Europe. By the 18th century, some maps began to depict California as a peninsula. It was not until 1747, that Spain’s King Ferdinand officially settled the debate by issuing a decree proclaiming that California was not an island.

Modern Times

The advent of photography and later, air travel and satellite imagery in the 20th century ensured that inaccurate landmass classifications and other glaring geographic inaccuracies were a thing of the past. With modern technology at their disposal, cartographers could focus on creating map layers tailored to serve specific purposes and demographics.

In the 1960s, Cold War concerns led to the United States military building the first global positioning system (GPS). The technology remained an exclusively military tool until a 1990s decision made GPS available to the public. In 1996, MapQuest emerged as the leading provider of GPS map-based driving directions. Drivers could research a location, print directions and use the personalized map to reach their destination.

MapQuest enjoyed five years as the premier commercial cartography service before Google Maps made its 2011 debut.Google Maps improved upon MapQuest’s cartographer-for-commuter business model, providing users with street-level views of destinations as well as public transportation data.

GovPilot’s Place

GovPilot knows great technology when we see it. We built our Google Maps-based geographic information system (GIS) to visualize layers of weather and traffic information aggregated from public domains. Many clients choose to add custom layers that harness information from internal databases. Displayed on a client’s official website, the public-facing map becomes a reliable source of information for citizens curious about their town’s real estate market, public transportation depots and other aspects of civic life.Our clients’ decisions to outfit their public-facing GovPilot GIS maps with detailed data about local resources and infrastructure indicate that they value frequent, open communication with residents. We like the way they prioritize! As we’ve discussed, civic engagement benefits both constituents and government.

As detailed in a 2016 press release, Madison County, New York is one such client. The county subscribed to both GovPilot and Pictometry International’s aerial measurement software until Database Coordinator, Michael B. Ellis, proposed that the two software manufacturers join forces.

The collaboration has resulted in a GIS map featuring aerial and historical views of all parcels in addition to street views and a wealth of pre-loaded and custom visualized datasets.

GovPilot GIS is now as portable as a physical map. The GovAlert mobile app harnesses the power of GIS to pinpoint users’ locations to ensure that concerns reported through the app go directly to local government for swift resolution.

The GovAlert mobile app harnesses the power of GIS to pinpoint users’ locations to ensure that concerns reported through the app go directly to local government for swift resolution.

From “garbled mass” to GovPilot’s GIS, maps continue to serve as evidence of mankind’s expanding travel options, technological triumphs and shifting priorities. GovPilot is honored to play a critical role in developing mapping tools that anticipate and accommodate all of the exciting developments to come.

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