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Insights & Trends 7 min read

How are maps created?

An illustration of different map layers.

The history of map-making can teach us how our ancestors viewed the world — and reveal the impact of how we see it today.

Maps have been an important part of human civilization since ancient times, guiding us through uncharted territories and helping us make sense of our surroundings. Over the centuries, map-making witnessed a big transformation, making advancements in technology, expanding our knowledge of the world and redefining the way we navigate. 

Today, we use maps to get around and improve our mobility, receive real-time information and updates and check everything from the weather and traffic conditions to the best spot for brunch.

But how are maps made?

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Carving out history

The story of maps begins with the earliest human civilizations. Long before GPS and satellites, maps were carved on clay tablets. The earliest known maps date back to ancient Babylon around 600 BCE. Over time, maps evolved from simple land sketches to complex representations of the Earth's surface.

One of the major advancements in how maps were made happened with the invention of the compass, a tool that helped cartographers determine cardinal directions such as north, south, east, and west by aligning its needle with the Earth's magnetic field. 

The needle's north-seeking end points toward the Earth's magnetic North Pole, helping navigators orientate themselves. Using a compass for navigation goes back to early explorers like Christopher Columbus, who used it to chart new waters.

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Love triangle

Apart from the compass, another method surveyors used to measure distances between points and accurately map vast terrains was triangulation. Triangulation works by measuring the angles between at least three reference points with known locations. It then applies trigonometric calculations to determine the exact position of objects. This enabled surveyors to calculate distances between these points and map vast terrains. The method is so effective that it's still in use today. Ever wondered how sports arenas are so perfectly shaped?

Dynamic Map Content

Coordinating coordinates

The concept of latitude can be traced back to ancient Greek astronomers and mathematicians, with Eratosthenes (276-194 BCE) as one of the first to propose a method for measuring latitude based on the angle of the Sun at local noon, observing shadows cast by vertical objects to estimate the Earth's circumference and develop a system of latitude lines. 

A prominent Greek astronomer and cartographer, Claudius Ptolemy (90-168 CE) further refined the concept. He introduced the idea of a meridian line passing through well-known locations, such as Alexandria in Egypt. This line served as a reference point for establishing longitude.

Fast forward to the 15th century, when advancements like the astrolabe (which uses the principles of trigonometry and observation of celestial bodies to measure angles and facilitate navigation) and quadrant (a device that observes celestial bodies for precise positioning at sea) allowed navigators to measure the angle between the stars and the horizon to estimate latitude.

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Lay of the land

It's hard to imagine how early mapmakers accomplished map accuracy and precision without technology. But they did. By performing ground surveys and using tools like theodolites, chains and compasses, they took measurements on foot or by boat and identified features of coastlines. They then used cross-referencing and geodetic control networks (a basic framework for surveying areas) to ensure consistency and accuracy across maps.

A geodetic control chain refers to a network of precisely measured control points that serve as reference markers for mapping purposes, forming a chain-like structure across a specific area or region. Mapmakers would connect these control points to form a framework for mapping the coastline, often cross-referencing their work with existing maps and charts to identify inconsistencies, errors or missing details in coastal line drawings. By comparing multiple sources, they could correct inaccuracies and improve the precision of maps.


Game changers

Map-making today might appear very different from its original methods, but many of the old methods remain (for instance triangulation, which is still very much in use). With the arrival of digitization, maps became accessible to everyone who had an internet connection. Today, technologies such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and satellite imagery that power Global Positioning Systems (GPS) allow us to create detailed maps with unparalleled accuracy. But technology definitely transformed map-making. Let's take a look at how maps are made today.

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Data energy

Modern mapmaking begins with the collection and integration of diverse location data from multiple sources, including aerial imagery, satellite data, lidar scans and ground surveys. These sources provide rich information about the Earth's surface, including topography, infrastructure and natural features. The data moves to processing and analysis before it is cleaned, aligned and combined to create comprehensive datasets that form the foundation of today's maps.

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Full picture

Once the location data is integrated, Geographic Information System (GIS) technology steps in to perform geospatial analysis. This powerful tool allows cartographers and geospatial analysts to manipulate and visualize the data in a meaningful way. Using specialized software, they can generate multiple map layers, showing different aspects such as elevation, land use, transportation networks and more. The visualization process involves carefully selecting symbols, colors and labels to accurately represent various features. Through this meticulous design, modern maps provide users with a clear and intuitive understanding of the geographical landscape.

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Always fresh

One of the remarkable aspects of modern maps is their ability to incorporate real-time updates. The invention of advanced GPS technology and connected devices allowed location data to be continuously updated, ensuring that maps remain current and reliable. By integrating data from various sources, including sensors and user-generated content, these maps offer an enhanced navigation experience that adapts to the changing needs of users. Platforms like HERE leverage this capability to provide users with dynamic mapping solutions, allowing for real-time traffic information, live tracking and personalized route optimization.

The evolution of maps has progressed so much that today, we live in a world where maps are more than just tools for navigation. They are dynamic, interactive platforms that help us analyze and interpret data in ways our predecessors could only dream of. From real-time traffic updates to tracking climate change, maps continue to shape our understanding of the world.

Maja Stefanovic

Maja Stefanovic

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