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Insights & Trends 5 min read

Why maps matter

Why maps matter

In our modern era, we’ve mapped nearly every corner of the world, so why is mapmaking more important than ever? The answer lies in what maps reveal to us.

Maps are data.

There’s a road here. There’s a river there. This area belongs to these people. If you follow that path, you’ll want to wear sturdy shoes. If you’re traveling to that place, you’ll need to find a boat.

Further, maps are data rendered concisely. Consider just a small portion of what you can learn from reading a map of a city. Where is 580 Broadway? What’s the closest intersection to that address? Where does the nearest subway line stop? Alternatively, think of how it would look if you had to convey that same information, along with similar details covering an entire city, on a single piece of paper using only letters and numbers.

So, like numbers and language, maps take vastly complex ideas and distill them down into concise, accessible, broadly understood information. We turn to maps to quickly answer questions and solve problems, which is one of the reasons that maps have been held in high regard throughout history.

Maps as storytellers

Some of the earliest geographic maps were commissioned by landowners. Consequently, the story those maps often told was that the person that paid to have the map made owned that forest, or controlled that river, or could tax people living on what the map clearly shows is the landowner’s property.

This kind of application, often called persuasive cartography, is still very much alive, though perhaps it’s less overt nowadays. Map makers can change viewers’ perceptions through how the map is oriented, the colors they apply to show areas, and the specific projection they choose to use.

As an example, look at the map of the United States Presidential Election results of 2016. A Ph.D. candidate in Washington State pulled together a single database of precinct-level voting data for the entire country, which was then made into an interactive map by the New York Times.

United States 2016 voting data by precinct compiled by Ryne Rohla, visualized by the New York Times. In two dimensions, the story of the favored side seems obvious.



Quickly glancing at the 2D map, one might assume the Republican nominee (red) enjoyed an overwhelming victory. However, official election results show that the Democratic nominee (blue) won the popular vote by a margin of 2.8 million votes. To accurately convey the story, rendered a similar map in 3D, where height represents the total number of votes. With this new data of voter density added, a clearer, more accurate story emerges.

United States 2016 voting data visualized by Max Galka. Though his visualization uses the exact same data as above, the story it tells is quite different.

Maps as problem solvers

With their ability to rapidly condense and visualize data, maps are incredibly powerful tools for taking on some of the most important challenges that we face. Loaded with accurate information, maps can distill pages upon pages of analytic data into a single view that effectively eliminates the guesswork in organizational planning. The applications, especially for social good, are nearly limitless.

Natural disasters can occur without warning, taking a heavy toll on the landscape of communities where they occur. Roads may become impassible, power and utilities can be cut off, and buildings may become inhospitable. Companies like MapAction and DNV GL mobilize to create accurate maps before and after disasters strike. The data they gather gives emergency services the ability to reach the locations where they’re most needed while avoiding unexpected conditions along the way.

Maps don’t stop at solving problems reactively, in the right hands, they enable proactive solutions. Geospatial Crime Mapping allows for a deeper look at the underlying factors that create hot spots for criminal activity in communities. By understanding the factors that create areas with high risk, police officials can engage in preventative strategies, and lessen the need for emergency responses.

To tackle these types of problems effectively, the maps put to task must be accurate, precise, and flexible. It’s not a task to be taken lightly.

HERE understands the importance of providing the next generation of location technologies that enable the world’s biggest problems to be solved. The tools we create don’t just help navigate the world, they provide data-driven insights into our communities, our cities, and the societies we live in that can all be improved.

Urban mobility is a single example among the multiple ways we’re working to achieve our goal of engendering a better world. Our hope is that the location data we provide will add to the legacy of mapping that changes the world. We’re looking to help persuade and build a stronger perception of how we can enable urban communities to thrive, and ultimately create a better place for everyone to work, breathe, and live.

You can read more about how we’re applying maps to make the world better in our ebook on Harmonizing Mobility


Bradley Walker

Bradley Walker

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