How do we make maps?

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It’s a common enough question – ‘How do we make maps?’

Having been trained as cartographers, it’s second nature to us but to others it can seem a daunting task. Yes, anyone can sketch out a rough map on a scrap of paper but, if you want something a little better and a little more accurate, it gets slightly more complicated.

Take a few minutes out of your day while we show you how we produce maps at PCGraphics.

First, a glimpse into the not so distant past when all maps we created ‘manually’. This meant working over a light box (like a glass topped table with lights underneath) where every line was drawn or ‘scribed’ using pen-like instruments with chiseled sapphire points (yes, it sounds like something that would be used in the stone-age but this was only a couple of decades ago). Text, or ‘type’, was placed onto a map manually using a photographic method of typing the words (street names etc) onto very thin film which was then coated on the reverse with a layer of wax and applied to the map sheet. All the elements of the maps were combined together, in negative form, in a reprographics studio. Eventually, four ‘final films’ of the map were created and these were used to make a proof or to print from.

Obviously, this was extremely laborious and costly and, if you made a mistake, it could mean hours or even days wasted. So, when computers, and especially the Apple Mac, arrived it didn’t take long for cartographers to switch to computer created maps.

End of, albeit a rather brief, history lesson.

So, today, cartography tends to be split between GIS (Geographic Information System) maps and maps which are simply graphics. GIS maps have a lot more intelligent data behind them in the form of databases whereas graphical maps are simply that, graphics.

At PCGraphics we specialise in graphical maps (our name gives a clue to that!) and our maps are usually created in a vector drawing programme called Illustrator. Vector simply means that the drawing is made up of points, any of which can be adjusted, moved, deleted etc. Vector artwork is scalable and can be enlarged without becoming pixillated.

The map portion below shows the blue keylines and points which are used to create a vector map. These are what the map is made up of and don’t print in the final version.

illustrator

Ok, we want to draw a map and we’ve spent over £500 on a licence for the Illustrator programme sitting on our shiny new Mac or PC. What now?

The first decision is what to base the map on. There are several choices for this. Taking the example above, a map of Oxford in the UK, we would need to use one or more of the following

  • aerial photography
  • out of copyright mapping or other copyright free information
  • Ordnance Survey data

Prior to April 2010, we would probably have used aerial photography as the basis for creating the map. We would have imported the photography into Illustrator and traced all the roads and other linework from the photographs. Obviously aerial photos don’t come with the names of towns or roads attached, so the next stage would be to send some hapless cartographer out into the wilds of the City of Oxford armed with a pen, paper and clipboard to note down the name of every road or other feature appearing on the map. Nice on a warm, sunny day but pretty miserable when it rained or snowed. At the end of this we would have had what is termed a ‘royalty free’ map. This meant that everything on the map was generated by ourselves and nothing was taken from a copyright source.

This all changed in April 2010 however when large chunks of Ordnance Survey data were opened up for commercial use. Whereas, previously, the O.S. would have charged an arm and a leg, and sometimes more, in royalty payments for using the data we in the UK had already paid for in our taxes, it was now all available free.

So, today, a map of Oxford would probably be based on Ordnance Survey data with no royalties or licence fees to pay. The production costs are likely to be less too than the royalty free method outlined earlier. Oh, and there’s less chance of cartographers getting sunburnt or caught in a rainstorm too! A win/win situation.

This still leaves the drawing in Illustrator to do. Illustrator is one of those programmes which have a steep learning curve. Quite honestly, if there was a viable alternative we’d be using it. There used to be an alternative called Freehand, which was much more intuitive to use, but Adobe, who make Illustrator, bought Freehand and swiftly dumped it.

Don’t get me wrong, you can make great maps in Illustrator, it’s just that Freehand was so much easier to use. But hey, who needs an easy life anyway?

Illustrator, as do most vector software, lets you work in layers. A map of Oxford for instance can have 100+ layers, any of which can be turned on or off and the data on that layer manipulated.

layers

(Above – Just a few of the layers on a typical map created in Illustrator)

A paper proof can either be printed straight from the Illustrator file or, more commonly these days, the file is exported to a JPEG or PDF and sent by email for the client to approve. Once this is done, and any changes made, we’re ready to send the final file to the client or printer.

So, that’s it in a nutshell. Ok, so there’s a few more twists and turns along the way, as there is with most things, but that’s the basics of it.

Cartography, it has to be said, is far easier these days than it used to be even in the early 1990s. It’s much more efficient and a lot, lot cheaper than the old manual methods. It’s still an enjoyable career and one we only (very) occasionally regret entering.

 

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Google Maps

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google_maps_logo

When Google Maps first made an appearance back around 2005 – 2006, one of the questions people nearly always asked us at PCGraphics was ‘has it affected your business?’

The general thought was that having a major player like Google enter the mapping market would badly affect the number of clients wanting maps from us.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s had the complete opposite effect. Whereas previously maps were seen as staid and, perhaps, even slightly boring, the prominence that Google brought to the mapping market changed that perception almost overnight. Now it was cool to have maps on your website and everyone wanted them.

Obviously people found it really easy to drop a Google Map into the code for their website but, and this is where the market really took off for us, many then found that the map, while functional, didn’t blend in too well with the website design. The other thing was that, well, everyone’s maps looked the same.

At PCGraphics we’d always created custom designed maps and, now that it was almost obligatory to have a map on your website or brochure, we were feeling the effects of having a major company like Google create a huge surge of interest.

When we talk to strangers about what we do and we tell them we’re map makers (we tend not to say cartographers as it has a habit of confusing people!) their usual reply these days is ‘Oh, like Google Maps?’. Now, even though we’ve been around a lot longer than Google Maps, we don’t take offence. We use Google maps just like everyone else. It’s horses for courses. If you want to look up a location quickly on your iPad, iPhone or whatever then head for Google. If you want something a bit more customised and, dare I say it, aesthetically pleasing, then you know where to find us!

So, thank you Google, and keep up the good work.

 

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Events on the Isle of Wight – October 2013

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There’s always plenty to do and see on the Isle of Wight. We’ve compiled a short list below to give a flavour of what’s on during October. All the links are to the Visit Isle of Wight website.

 

stars Stargazing weekend at Island Planetarium

steam Autumn Steam Gala – IW Steam Railway

food Natural Wight Wild Food Walk – St Helens

books Isle of Wight Literary Festival

woods Electric Woods “Lost Before Time”

fright The Curse of Captain Black – ghost walk

walking Isle of Wight Autumn Walking Festival

hops Hops Festival at Ventnor Botanic Garden

fossil walk  Autumn fossil and geological landscape walks

cowes food Cowes Food Show

steam Wizard Week at IW Steam Railway

park of the dead Park of the Dead

 

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When maps go bad

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We all make mistakes and cartographers are no different to anyone else. And yes, even here at PCGraphics we’ve made the occasional mistake on a map or two over the years. But Apple’s map app has been truly a disaster from the word go.

After Apple’s well publicised dropping of Google Maps in 2012, we all thought that Apple’s new map app would be the best thing since, well, since Google Maps.

It wasn’t. It was a disaster.

And that wasn’t just the opinion of cartographers, it was what ordinary users were saying. Which was all very surprising really, because Apple is well known for putting a lot of thought into the design of it’s computers and software. Apple products normally ‘just work’.

Sadly, the content of the maps was fundamentally flawed. Town names were wrongly positioned, sometimes many miles from their correct location. Sometimes a large town name was completely missing, yet a small village just down the road would be named. It was all quite bizarre and random.

In the screenshot below you can see the small village of Fishbourne named, quite correctly. This is one of the ferry terminals on the Isle of Wight. Along the coast from Fishbourne is Ryde, which is actually the largest town on the Island. Is Ryde named? No, and neither are many of the other towns.

ryde

So, move on a year to 2013 and with iOS7 coming out and being all shiny and new (if a little washed out looking) you’d have thought they would have sorted out the problem of their maps. Apparently not.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24246646

It would appear that, in Alaska, the route finder in the app will take you along airport taxiways and across a runway. Probably not a good driving experience for the more nervous drivers amongst us.

It does beg a couple of questions though (leaving aside why Apple still hasn’t got the Map app right). Firstly, what on earth is a road doing going across a runway anyway? And, secondly, you do have to wonder about the mentality of drivers who follow their satnavs so slavishly that they will drive onto an airfield despite all the warning signs.

Maybe this is a one-off mistake but somehow I don’t think it will be.

And, no, before anyone asks, PCGraphics weren’t involved in supplying maps to Apple! And we couldn’t possibly say who was either…

 

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Something nice to start off with

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This is Steephill Cove on the Isle of Wight, photographed by moonlight.

Steephill Cove is situated near Ventnor on the south of the Island and is only accessible on foot, which probably adds to its charm. It’s on the Isle of Wight Coastal Path and can get quite busy in the height of summer, especially when the tide’s fully in. Very picturesque though and well worth a visit.

At the top of the cliffs, above the beach, is Ventnor Botanic Gardens. The microclimate in this area allows a surprising range of Mediterranean plants to flourish. Until 2012, the Botanic Gardens were owned by the Isle of Wight Council and were free to enter. Now, unfortunately, there’s an admission charge which tends to discourage many locals from visiting. But don’t get us started on that topic…..!

steephillcove

The photo is courtesy of Visit Isle of Wight. You may like to look at their Facebook page which has loads more lovely photos.

Visit Isle of Wight

 

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Welcome to the pcgblog…

Welcome to the pcgblog, brought to you by PCGraphics, one of the UK’s leading customised mapping service companies. But don’t worry, the pcgblog isn’t going to be just about maps.

This is where we’ll comment on anything and everything – from our own maps and those produced by others, to the Isle of Wight (where we live and work), to the World in general. In fact, anything which takes our fancy.

It sounds like a good plan. Let’s see how it goes….