The Past, Present and Future of Interactive Mapping: Part I

Here at Three Scale, we strive to always be ahead of the curve when it comes to interactive mapping.  Cartographers by trade, it is our goal to create the best mapping experience possible, and the best way to achieve this is knowing where we have been, what tools are currently available, and where will online mapping take us in the future. The internet has changed the game in how people engage the world around them and interactive web mapping has benefited immensely over the years because of this.  So what’s next?  Before we look to the future, we need to talk about the huge leaps mapping has taken over the past 20 years.

The Past: Loading, Loading, and More Loading…

In the olden days, and by olden days I am referring to life us Millennials experienced before the internet, the only way to interact with a map was to unfold a paper version and attempt to use if for directions (yes, for some reason we made maps out of paper).  Mapping as a whole was turned on its head with the advent of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and the public use of GPS satellites.  Suddenly, the amount of detail and control in digital mapping changed the way we view our planet, let alone finally allow you to find yourself on a map.  It was only a matter of time before these interactive capabilities where translated to the net, but before that could happen, some major advances in web technology were needed.

If you had the pleasure of using the internet during the dial-up days, you will know that load speeds where painfully slow, so interactive mapping was the least of your worries back then. With the introduction of DSL and cable internet, serious web browsing could finally be achieved.  Even with these advancements, online mapping was still limited to two main platforms: a basic Google map embed or deal with building a Flash-based mapping tool.  While the later offered the most advanced way of viewing maps within your web browser, it wasn’t until the release of Google’s Maps API that interactive mapping was truly introduced to the masses (can you even image not having a map by your side today?).   But Google Maps could only take you so far, and creating a custom interactive map took some highly technical, not to mention expensive, programming knowledge, especially given how poorly these maps would run on most computers at that time.  The technology simply was not there, until now.

Google Maps has come a long way, take a look at the above YouTube clip to find out more.

The Present: Terabytes, I Just Got Used to Gigabytes…

Luckily, over the past 5 years, web standards and computer hardware have come a long way, and so has interactive mapping.  With the dramatic increase in internet download/upload speeds (the U.S. average is 7.6 megabytes per second according to Akamai’s “The State of the Internet” report), surfing the web has gone from checking one’s email and doing simple Google searches, to creating this immersive experience where anyone can be connected to everyone with just the click of a button.

Now that the internet is scratching the surface of its full potential, web browsing technology is also following suit.  I advise anyone looking to find out more about current web technologies to read through the interactive web book titled “20 Things I Learned about Browsers and the Web”.  Terms like HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript, and JQuery may sound foreign to most people, but they are the tools that are shaping the future of the web.  All of these play a crucial role in the current developments of new, open source, multi-platform interactive mapping technologies.  Yes, rendering a beautiful yet capable online map still takes a good technical background and some custom coding experience, but both the price and load times have dropped considerably in recent years.  Three Scale’s interactive map platform, MicroMaps, has benefited from these HTML5 web standards, evident in the release of our Mobile version and the soon to be released JavaScript Desktop version.  Powered by Leaflet, an open source JavaScript mapping application, our HTML5 maps will now be tiled, allowing us to really ramp up the file sizes of our basemaps and points of interest (POI). More importantly, MicroMaps will now be optimized for every smart device, truly making our maps mobile, and mobile is undoubtedly the future of interactive mapping.

McMurry University’s mobile map is a great example of how Three Scale’s MicroMaps works across all platforms thanks to HTML5.

Click to view larger size.

Click to view larger size.

So what’s next for interactive mapping? Check back next Wednesday for Part 2 of “The Past, Present, and Future of Interactive Mapping” and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.