Over the past two decades, changes in the way we navigate our world have been drastic, as has the way we perceive ourselves within our local environment. No longer do we think in terms of where we are on a map but where features on the map are in relation to us. Thanks to the sat nav and GPS, we’ve now become a static blue dot in the centre of our personal universe, while virtual cities and countrysides rotate and move past us as we travel.

Mike Duggan, who studies Cultural Geography at Royal Holloway, looks at how digital mapping has altered the way we experience ordinary places and navigation, and in particular, urban environments. He explains that the digital maps available right in our pockets ‘smooth out’ complex urban environments into simple, easy-to-understand graphics in whichever context we need. For example, digital maps can give you your location in terms of distances from food outlets, entertainment or places of historic interest – the list goes on.

A World-Wide Personalised Pocket Map

Now that digital maps are cheap and widely available, we have a greater command over the environment we navigate. We can call up our location on a map on our phones just about anywhere within seconds, complete with information on which direction we’re facing. With the aid of Google Street View, we can even take the virtual journey beforehand and familiarise ourselves with landmarks along the way. Maps have become interactive – for example, there are now cycling street map apps that allow users to add cycle-friendly information about various locations ranging from bicycle security to recommended routes. Map using communities are encouraged to contribute local knowledge to help their fellow users get the best from their maps.

Professional Map Production

Traditional map makers, like Ordnance Survey, are at the forefront of digital mapping, with their content of their apps constantly updated, free from the constraints of paper maps going out of date. But digital mapping isn’t just for the individual wanting to get from A to B with the help of a mobile app, and static maps are still essential in various industries. For example, digital map providers like http://www.promap.co.uk/maps-and-data/current-mapping/os-detail allow the layers and flexibility needed for specific maps to be produced in line with requirements for processes such as planning applications, site valuation, risk management and transport and routing.

Power and Control

In the past, maps were more often considered symbols of power than tools for navigation. Tom Harper, who is the curator of antiquarian mapping at the British Library, explains how maps of the sixteenth century were little more than ornaments – hung in the manors and palaces of rulers and lords to represent the extent of the power they exerted. Common folk of the day would never have seen a map, nor have any knowledge of the land beyond a few miles of their local environment.

As maps and atlases came into more widespread use in the 18th and 19th centuries, they imposed a physical sense of scale on the user in terms of distance, and the user needed to pinpoint their position on the map by means of co-ordinates. Digital mapping, however, has returned that sense of control over the land we travel, and more.

Most of us who drive will be familiar with using sat navs, planning a route in advance and interacting with live traffic updates, giving the chance to avoid long queues. Journey length is expressed in terms of time as well as miles or kilometres, and drivers given the opportunity of adding two miles to their planned route if it’s going to cut ten minutes from the journey time are most likely going take that option. The saying that knowledge is power is as true in navigation as it is in any other context. A live map helps you make informed decisions and gives you the power over the environment you’re navigating, allowing you to take control.

More and more, we’re living among empty outlines of our world seen through the tiny window of our mobile devices, animated and simplified, raising concerns that future generations will forget to stop and take in the wonders of our cities and countryside. But the continual generation of up-to-date maps that can be accessed digitally has helped smooth the processes that development, planning and construction industries need to go through in order to see their projects through to completion. Not only that, digital maps visualise data for environmental risk assessments to help monitor and protect the environment we live in and travel through every day.