Forest Inventory, Maps, Quality of Spatial Representation, and Tales of “Geo-Epistemology”

Khantia-Mansia Forest at Yuganski Nature Reserve (Wiki Commons)

Why do we care about maps? What is the importance of a good versus a poor map? Those words again: accuracy, reliability, precision, level of detail, level of resolution. Flexibility in what is displayed and what is not. Flexibility of interpretation and reinterpretation at different scales.

For sure these qualities matter, but why? Is there more that we should be concerned about? Perhaps a deeper question?

William Rankin — “After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century (2016)

I started reading William Rankin’s latest book on “After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century” to see if I could get another perspective on this question.

I can do no better than to quote what he has to say (footnotes in parentheses and then reproduced at the end):

“In most contexts — for specialists and nonspecialists alike — the obvious way to evaluate changes in geographic knowledge is in terms of accuracy, and it is usually fair to assume that more accurate knowledge translates into a better user experience and more political power (1). My approach however is different. Rather than focusing on the relentless rise in precision or ever more impressive feats of measurement and targeting, I am more interested in changes in the kind of knowledge produced. The term I use is geo-epistemology; what matters to me is not just what is known about the earth, but how it is known — and how it is used. Geo-epistemology is the difference between knowing your neighborhood through detailed stories, a pictorial guidebook, a map, aerial photographs, the coordinates of a GPS receiver, or through simply walking around. It is about trustworthy knowledge (how can I know my world really is what it is?) and it is also about our everyday existence in space (how do I understand my surroundings, my mobility, my relationship to others?). Above all it is about importance — and unavoidability — of tools: the goggles of geo-epistemology come in many styles, but they can never be removed. And although for most purposes GPS does indeed offer much more precision than a map, it also constructs a radically different relationship between user, landscape, and authority.”

The ultimate test is not in the map itself, but rather in its application

“The comparison is again both experiential and political. Maps operate through representation. They create a miniature version of the world and give us a detached view from above, with the messy complexities of reality simplified and reduced to a legible system of lines and colors. Think of the maps in war rooms or on negotiating tables, where knowledge of a distant land is centralized and assembled for the sake of large-scale strategy or the carving up of continents. The power of these maps lies in the ability to act as a stand-in for the original landscape, so that decisions can be made from afar and any new lines drawn with the diplomat’s pen can be scaled up and projected back into the world (2). This is no small feat, and early twentieth-century surveyors and cartographers saw the task of representation as nothing less than a problem of scientific truth. Making a “truthful map” meant establishing rigorous rules that would govern the correspondence between the map and the world, and the virtues of objectivity, neutrality, and comprehensiveness were seen as the foundation of trustworthy cartography (3). Taken to an extreme, this faith in re representation is what transforms maps (in the plural) into the map — a singular, universal record of geographic fact that includes everything worthy of attention, and nothing more. Armed with such a map, it is no longer even necessary to leave your desk: the world has come to you.”

Rankin’s statement leads me to conclude the following:

The ultimate test is not in the map itself, but rather in its application: for what purposes, with what intended outcomes, and with what realized outcomes? To the extent that the realized outcomes are in accord with those intended, and to the extent that they can be verified and reconciled by way of the information that went into the process, a level of confidence can be established. It is only by using the product that we truly find out.

Read more about Tesera’s approach to high resolution forest inventory.

Ian Moss, RPF is Chief Analytics Officer at


Rankin, W. 2016. After the map. Cartography, navigation, and transformation of territory in the twentieth century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill., US.

Rankin’s Footnotes:

(1) See for example, Rip and Hasik, Precision Revolution. Even when historians and sociologists of science have successfully unpacked the technological inevitability of accuracy, this has not shifted the central focus of attention. For a canonical example, see Donald MacKensie, Inventing accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990)

(2) The connection between legibility and centralization — with the map as an important metaphor — is made explicit in James Scott, Seeing like a State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

(3) For historical definitions of map as representation see the entry “Map” by Charles Close and Alexander Ross Clarke in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica; or J. H. Andrews, “What Was a Map? The Lexicographer Reply,” Cartographica 33 (Winter 1996), 1–11. For the truthfulness of maps see Cyrus Adams, Map and Map-Making,” Bulletin of the American Geographical Society 44, no 3 (1912): 199.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.