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The Future of Maps

Four cutting-edge cartographers--from Google's explorer-in-residence to Tom Harrison himself--help us chart the course of the next revolution in wilderness mapping.

BP Which brings us back to reliability. Democracy, personalization tools, and local beta are great, but how do you create trust in crowd-sourced information?

Tom This is pretty important. Even with very current U.S. Forest Service maps, I’ll often look and I think, “Wait, no, that road isn’t there, and I know that because I was just there last year.” Part of the problem with making maps, especially in big government agencies, is that the people making the maps don’t have the time and resources to go out, on the ground, and look. And so you have citizen cartographers who go out and say, “No, that map is wrong.” In the long run, that will build the trust.

I think the best solution is having systems that allow a lot of people to give feedback. If one person adds a road that should be there, that’s one thing. But if 10 people add roads and those people have made other edits that have been approved by a community of users, you start to get this web of trust. With Google’s My Maps tool, you can edit maps and collaborate online. You can say, “Hey, my 10 friends went and did this hike and we all have photos and stories. Here’s a collaborative map where we can all go in and simultaneously edit and add stuff.” That builds a lot of confidence.

BP So if you’re a budding citizen cartographer, where should you start?

Tom One low-tech option is to scan a USGS quad and bring it into Adobe Acrobat, which lets you draw things, add notes, and import multimedia files. The second way I’d recommend is to use a program like Maptech’s Terrain Navigator.

Another approach is to get a handheld GPS like a Garmin Dakota or Colorado, and learn the software that comes with it. There are also good online services that help you put your data together without arcane transfer protocols, then give you a link to share with others hikers. And you can go into a tool like Google’s My Maps and draw your own route without ever having been there, then export that file into a device that you can take into the field.

BP Have you done that, Peter?

Yes, in fact, for the last two years, I’ve attempted to get up Mt. Ritter [in California’s Sierra Nevada] using a track I drew. The first time, I had my GPS and got off the route. There wasn’t snow where I thought there would be snow, and—long story short—I didn’t make the summit. Next year, I went back. This time, a storm came in and we had to turn around. So now I have a map that’s actually a 3D Google Earth view with all three routes overlaid. I intend to add another one this season that goes to the summit.

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