National Mapping Organisations and the World Wide Web, challenges and opportunities

This paper was presented in session 03-D of the ICA 1999 Conference in Ottawa, Canada (Conference proceedings are published on CD-ROM)

Last update: 24 Aug 1999 © Rob Hootsmans


Menno-Jan Kraak

Division of Geoinformatics, Cartography and Visualisation, ITC
P.O. Box 6, 7500 AA Enschede, the Netherlands
phone + 31 53 4874463, fax + 31 53 4874335
kraak@itc.nl

Rob Hootsmans

Division of Geoinformatics, Cartography and Visualisation, ITC
P.O. Box 6, 7500 AA Enschede, the Netherlands
phone + 31 53 4874256, fax + 31 53 4874335
hootsmans@itc.nl

 

Abstract

The World Wide Web (WWW) is to play a prominent role in the National, if not Global Spatial Data Infrastructure, which aims at a networking of commonly used datasets. Of all data supplied, geographic base data form the framework for most application-oriented data. In this paper, it is investigated how well prepared the traditional providers of these framework data, the National Mapping Organisations (NMO’s), are in their use of the WWW. This inventory is compared with today’s interactive and dynamic cartographic options the WWW has to offer. Examples are the static presentation with the map as index to other information or option to influence the map contents. Dynamic options are different kinds of animations as well as VR-solutions. It reveals, for instance, that several NMO’s use clickable index maps, but only a few apply animation to show a flyby of their digital terrain data. The paper ends with several suggestions on how the NMO’s could better use the new cartographic capabilities of the WWW.

 

 

1. Introduction

National Mapping Organisations (NMO’s) are responsible for a country’s framework data, the elementary topographic data needed by other geodisciplines. From Rhind's (1997) book "Framework for the world" we learn that most organisations are in the midst of change: change guided by new technology, by government decisions (financial cut-backs!), and competitive market demands. According to Rhind, the organisations have a future as long as they accept that they are living with uncertainty and will remain in a permanent state of change.

As one result of this process of change Morrison (1997) observes a considerable 'democratisation' of cartography: no longer the map producer dictates what is put on a map, more and more the map users are being equipped with the electronic tools to make the visualisations of their geographic thinking, a trend earlier observed in a slightly different context by Peuquet and Bacastow (1991) in their discussion of topographic mapping for the Defence Mapping Agency (DMA). In addition to one supply driven and centrally controlled set of highly accurate, hard-copy products intended for multiple uses, there is a growing demand for multiple, single-use sets of products of varying accuracy levels (determined by the appropriateness of the available electronic tools and data). These products can be delivered as hard or soft copy, derived from one or more electronic databases, serving specifically stated purposes. These deliveries can be products such as a digital raster graphic (sometimes referred to as DRG), e.g. a scan of the paper map product, or as a digital line or vector graphic (referred to as DLG), which may be used directly in a GIS.

One can ask the question if the traditional providers of the geographic framework offer the basic data that users of spatial data need or require for processing in Geographic Information Systems, and additionally, in a way that fully exploits the possibilities of these tools in general, and uses the options and potential of the WWW in particular, to disseminate these data and play a role in the National Spatial Data Infrastructure.

This paper provides an introduction into the possibilities of the World Wide Web as a new dissemination instrument for National Mapping Organisations from a cartographic perspective. It discusses how an inventory of the current activities of NMOs on the WWW can be performed by listing a number of both general and specific criteria, accompanied by some examples. In conclusion, a synthesis comments on the future that lies ahead by further exploiting WWW-capabilities: what should or can be done?

 

2. The World Wide Web as a new instrument for NMOs

Dissemination of information over the WWW
The World Wide Web (WWW) is one of the latest new media to present and disseminate spatial data. In this process the map plays a key role and has multiple functions. Maps can play the traditional role maps play, e.g. to provide insight in spatial patterns and relations. But because of the nature of the WWW the map can also function as an interface to additional information. Geographic locations on the map can be linked to for instance photographs, text, sound or other maps, somewhere out there in cyberspace. Maps can also be used as preview of spatial data products to be acquired.

Why is the WWW interesting as a medium to present and disseminate spatial data? The answer is that a presentation on the Web is virtually platform-independent, unrivalled in its capacity to reach many users at minimal costs and easy to update frequently.

Furthermore, it allows for a dynamic and interactive dissemination of spatial data, offering new mapping techniques and use possibilities, especially not seen before with traditional printed maps. Compared to maps-on-screen it is the distribution factor that opens up new opportunities. These are all arguments that should appeal to National Mapping Organisations, although some copyright issues and financial implications remain. It is difficult to charge customers for access to your information. Anything on the WWW is seen as public domain. Techniques such as watermarking your maps or securing your site through access restrictions (for example, the Finnish NMO uses access restrictions for the download of data) can help solve questions of copyright and use costs.

 

Figure 1. Distribution of people with access to the WWW (for better overview: see ITC-website URL2.1).

The interactivity and ease of use of the WWW is currently limited by technology. However, developments are proceeding quickly, and what is not possible today certainly will be tomorrow. Examples (see ITC-website: URL2.1) of advanced cartographic WWW options are animations to depict movement and change, multimedia (maps combined with other graphics, sound, text and moving images). Other examples [URL2.1] are virtual environments that offer an interactive (realistic) 3d view on the landscape, for instance via flyby's and exploratory environments where geoscientists can work to solve their problems and make new discoveries. One has to keep in mind that despite its growth the WWW is accessible to a relatively limited group of people. And these are certainly not evenly spread through out the world as can be seen in figure 1. The WWW is a fast medium used by impatient people. If your information takes too long to download, users will lose interest and go to other sites. The same people also expect up-to-date information. If the site indicates the last changes were effectuated more than a month ago, it will be considered of no value. Most successful sites with a cartographic content are those offering time-sensitive information, such as the weather or traffic or those that allow you to interactively compose location or route maps. These are points to consider by National Mapping Organisations when designing their site.

Classification of webmaps
How can the maps be put on the WWW? It is possible to distinguish between several methods that differ in terms of necessary technical skills from both the user’s and provider’s perspective. The overview given here (figure 2) can only be a snapshot, since development on the WWW is tremendously fast. This ‘classification’ is certainly not carved in stone, and one might easily find examples that would not fit these categories, or define new categories or combinations. Its objective is to give an overview of current possibilities, based on how the map image is used. An important distinction is that between static and dynamic maps.

 

 Figure 2. Web-mapping method

Static, view only maps
The most common map on the WWW is the static view-only. Often the sources for these webmaps are original cartographic products, which are scanned and put as bitmaps on the WWW. This form of presentation can be very useful, for instance, to make historical maps more widely accessible, as can be seen at the URL2.2 where rare maps by the famous Dutch cartographer Blaeu can be viewed. National Mapping Organisations could for instance offer old map series likewise. The static view-only maps can also serve to give the web-surfers an impression of available products, and the NMO's could show details of their map series (see the ITC-website: URL2.1).

Static, interactive maps
Static maps can also be interactive. The interactivity could mean the user has the option for zooming, panning [URL2.6]. Alternatively it could mean that hyperlinks to other information are available. These are the so-called "clickable maps", and act as an interface to other data. Clicking on geographic object could lead to other information sources on the Web (see for examples: URL2.1). NMO's could use their traditional index maps to offer information on individual mapsheets [URL2.1]. It is also possible to have the user interactively determine the contents of the maps, by choosing data layers, and even the look of the information, by choosing symbology and colours (see for example the national Atlas Information System of Canada, at URL2.3). [URL2.7] offers an example of this approach for the Digital Chart of the World. This functionality can be used to show customers what to expect of the data they might like to acquire.

Dynamic, view only maps
Dynamic maps are about change; change in one or more of the spatial data’s components. On the WWW several options to play animation are available. The so-called animated-GIF can be seen as the view-only version of the dynamic maps. A set of bitmaps, each representing a frame from an animation are positioned after each other and the WWW-browser will continuously repeat the animation. These can be used for example to depict the changing weather over the last day [URL2.4]. Slightly more interactive versions of this type of maps are those to be played by mediaplayers, in AVI, MPEG or Quicktime format. Plug-ins to the WWW-browser define the interaction options, which are often limited to simple pause, backward and forward. These animations do not use any specific WWW-environment parameters and have equal functionality in the desktop-environment. NMO's could use them to show the nature of their digital terrain models (e.g. URL2.8).

Dynamic, interactive maps
Virtual environments in VRML or QuicktimeVR offer interactivity to the user, where the user for instance can define the travel path, and make decisions on directions, height. This is possible because these formats store a true 3D model of the objects, not just a series of 3D views. A nice example of this is the VRML model of Schiphol Airport [URL2.5]. Furthermore, they offer the incorporation of links and thus become a more interactive "clickable animation". An NMO could use this mode of presentation to demonstrate how their data can be used in advanced visualisation environments.

 

3. Inventory of current activities of NMOs on the World Wide Web

Presence on the WWW
With the above information on the potentials of the World Wide Web as a new instrument for map makers in mind, it is interesting to start an exploratory inventory of activities of National Mapping Organisations (NMOs) on the WWW. Such an inventory can start with examining whether NMOs do maintain a homepage on the WWW at all. For example, an overview of available homepages for European NMOs is given by CERCO, the organisation that represents the NMOs of almost all European countries [URL3.1]. Currently, many European NMOs appear to be active on the WWW to some extent (figure 3). Outside Europe homepages are offered by the NMOs of, for example, Canada, the USA, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Jordan, Qatar, Australia and New Zealand (an extensive inventory can be found at URL2.1).

  

Figure 3. National Mapping Organisations in the world with a WWW-site.

A second step in the inventory of NMO activities on the WWW is by the evaluation of the information content of their homepages. For this purpose an evaluation table is designed with which the value of the homepages can be classified. By using a uniform table one should be able to compare different NMOs. An example is given by table 1: this table can of course be extended with other evaluation criteria and modifications. When defining evaluation criteria one should ask what kind of information is expected from an NMO, e.g.:

- Should the site not only list the supply driven products but also demonstrate the capabilities to support demand driven products (cf. Morrison, 1997)?

- Should the site contain map examples or complete map products?

- What should be the level of information detail, simple or extensive descriptions?

- What should be the technical level of applications that are presented, just simple text, functional graphics, or even databases that can be consulted with the browser via a map interface?

General evaluation criteria
Already many authors on the World Wide Web cite basic criteria for a general evaluation of websites (see Smith [URL3.2 and 3.3] for an overview of websites related to evaluation methods). Many of these criteria can only be assessed in a qualitative way, which implies that final outcomes of the evaluation have to be interpreted likewise. Such criteria could relate for example to:

 

Figure 4. The contents of a website forms a mixture of information, advertisement and entertainment.

Furthermore the contents of a website often forms a mixture of information, advertising and entertainment. Most likely, any organisation that maintains a website, will not only be desirous to offer information, but also to use it as a form of advertisement to attract potential customers, which can be stimulated by means of including entertainment elements which hold attention (fig. 4). In order to gain popularity among the intended audience the mixture of these three components needs to be well balanced. Some examples of combinations between any two of the components can be (see for examples: URL2.1 and 2.8):

If a well considered balance among these components is lacking, the attention of the audience will be distracted more than was intended, which will lead to a rapid decrease of interest. The evaluation of this aspect is rather subjective, since it is largely dependent upon the scope of the site and the specific area of discipline. For instance, a site containing detailed information on maps can be appealing for cartographers but may at the same time be not interesting for other disciplines.

Evaluation criteria from a cartographic perspective
With respect to cartographic websites some supplementary criteria of inventory are needed that comply with the specific area of discipline. These criteria should reflect aspects of information one might be looking for when accessing an NMO’s website. This includes details on analogue products (description, samples, index sheets and price information) and digital products (description, sample data, availability of DRGs and DLGs, price information), next to information with respect to the organisation of the NMO. Other products with respect to consultancy and services, like geodetic control points, cadastral information or national atlas contributions, can be offered. These aspects can be further evaluated on the use of typical WWW-techniques to present the information: for example, index maps can be displayed view only or with an interactive interface. An interactive (‘clickable’) index map can lead the user to specific information on individual map sheets (e.g. British, Dutch and Norwegian NMOs use clickable index maps). The use of dynamic maps is still very limited: the British Ordnance Survey offers an example of a flyby animation, which is a view only presentation. Interactive, dynamic maps (like the examples given in section 2) were not found yet on any of the explored NMO-sites: however, this limited inventory does not pretend to offer an exhaustive overview and examples may have been missed.

Table 1 presents a limited sample of an inventory of some NMO websites for a few aspects that were mentioned as general and more cartography-specific criteria. This table only lists the presence or absence of these aspects, which does not indicate anything yet about the quality or functionality if an aspect is present, neither does absence of the listed aspects directly imply that the website is of less value. The first aspect deals with the language which is used for the website: for example, the NMOs of Hungary and Norway only use their national language, which may give rise to the conclusion that these organisations only focus on a national audience. Most websites offer index maps, that are based on their original paper map series on multiple scales. Some of these index maps are ‘static, interactive’, producing information on individual map sheets. Of course, one can argue that this subdivision in sheets is a relict of paper map series, and on the long term should be replaced by offering data for each user-specified map window (since the underlying database does not require a distinction of subsets). The columns ‘analogue’ and ‘digital’ reflect the supply driven product range (‘maps’), information on the costs of the products and the availability of samples that can be downloaded freely. The table also lists the presence of information on other products and services (some of which may be demand-driven), and links to sites of other organisations that deliver products based on information that is derived from the NMO. URL2.1 provides a more comprehensive inventory of these and other NMO websites and takes into account an extended list of criteria from a cartographic viewpoint.

Table 1. A limited sample of a basic inventory of some NMO websites (for a full table covering most NMOs on the WWW and more criteria, see the ITC-website: URL2.1).

 

 

 

 

 

analogue

digital

 

 

Country

URL

language

general info

index map

maps

samples

price info

maps

samples

price info

other products

links

Canada

www.nrcan.gc.ca

e/f

x

c

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Hungary

geo.cslm.hu/f

h

x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luxembourg

www.etat.lu/ACT

f

x

x

x

x

x

x

 

x

x

 

Netherlands

www.tdn.nl

d/e

x

c

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Norway

www.statkart.no

n

x

c

x

x

 

x

 

 

x

x

United Kingdom

www.ordsvy.gov.uk

e

x

c

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

USA - USGS

www.usgs.gov

e

x

c

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Generally: x - present
Column language: h – Hungarian; f – French; n – Norwegian; d – Dutch; e – English.
Column index map: x – present, but static and view only; c – clickable map (static, interactive).

 

4. Synthesis and recommendations

NMO website considerations
For a well considered design of websites in general there are already many guidelines available. These guidelines are based on criteria that can be matched with the purpose of the website. The website of a National Mapping Organisation should also evaluate these and additional criteria from a cartographic perspective. A general question to be addressed is what should the site look like with respect to the expected audience? From the answer a common denominator for most NMO-homepages may be derived. It is obvious that on one hand the intended audience is expected to be interested in the pure information that the NMO has on offer. On the other hand, the NMO will see its audience as potential customers, which indicates that the site will also have to act as some form of advertisement for its products and services. Aiming at an optimal balance between information and advertisement, the importance of the entertaining level of the website should not be underestimated: the website should attract and hold the attention of the intended audience. Entertaining action on the website could range from map animations or video fragments showing the work of a topographer in the field or showing the processing of data in a GIS, to a game which tests the user’s topographic knowledge.

Minimal requirements of the website: the supply driven approach
The site should then at least provide a clear reference to contact information and an overview of the organisational structure of the NMO, so that it is obvious which tasks are taken care of by the NMO’s people. Automatically this can (or should?) be accompanied by some sort of presentation of the supply driven products that are on sale: this could cover both the analogue map series and the digital base datasets that are developed, next to the availability of gazetteers. Naturally, this should not only be limited to simply providing names or numbers of map series or databases, but also provide clear insight in the precise specifications of the products on offer, from which the interested website-visitor can deduce the product’s fitness for use in relation to the intended application. Ideally, the website also contains some samples of digital raster graphics (scans of map fragments) or digital line graphics (a dataset which is directly applicable in a GIS) with which a potential customer can experiment to evaluate the suitability of the product’s format. Still, such a website would possess a mainly producer oriented (read: supply driven) character.

Towards a customer oriented website: the demand driven approach
To achieve a more customer oriented approach, the website should also pay attention to demand driven products. What kind of products can be delivered on demand, matching specific user requirements? There should be an option for on line ordering of printed maps on demand for a user-specific map window, that may cover an area of neighbouring map sheets, and which contains only those map features that the user requires. Such an option could as easily be extended to the ordering of digital base datasets that cover a user-specified area and only contains those data layers that the user is interested in. Next to such a range of products, the website can pay attention to the line of (consulting) services which the NMO is capable to deliver on demand or cross-refer to other institutes or companies that provide such services making use of NMO-datasets. Of course, the site should contain some clear-cut samples of demand driven products or services that the NMO has already carried out for other customers or can be achieved with NMO-datasets, showing the NMO’s capabilities.

Next to presenting current supply driven and demand driven products or services, the ideal website should also pay attention to possible products that may be widely in use in the near future, in a way that attracts potential customers who are not yet fully aware what NMO-data have on offer for them. A demonstration of such an advanced visualisation could be a flyby through a virtual reality environment providing user interaction with the underlying datasets. At this very moment such a sample will mostly likely perform an entertaining factor on the website for most visitors, but at the same time it is of special interest for researchers who are working on virtual 3D environments and who can use the digital topographic base data as the framework of their information systems.

 

Note

This paper reflects the first results of an attempt to collect global information on the activities of National Mapping Organisations on the World Wide Web. The findings do not represent an exhaustive evaluation, but are in fact the start of an inventory which will be reported by means of the ITC-website [URL2.1] and other publications. Readers who would like to react on this research or possess supplementary information are kindly requested to contact the authors.

 

 

References

Literature:

Morrison, J.L. (1997). Topographic mapping in the twenty-first century. In D. Rhind (Ed.), Framework for the world, pp. 14-27. Geoinformation International, Cambridge.

Peuquet, D.J. and T. Bacastow (1991). Organisational issues in the development of geographical information systems: a case study of U.S. Army topographic information automation. International Journal of GIS, vol. 5 (1991), no. 3, pp. 303-319.

Rhind, D. (Ed.) (1997). Framework for the world. Geoinformation International, Cambridge.

WWW-addresses (last visited: March 1999):

URL2.1 Hootsmans, R.M. Website specifically dedicated to research on activities of NMOs on the WWW, maintained by the division of Geoinformatics, Cartography and Visualisation of ITC:
http://www.itc.nl/~carto/nmo

URL2.2 Welling, G.R. Dutch City maps from Blaeu's Toonneel der Steden. Faculty of Arts, University of Groningen:
http://odur.let.rug.nl/~welling/maps/blaeu.html

URL2.3 National Atlas of Canada. Natural Resources Canada:
http://ellesmere.ccm.emr.ca/home-english.html)

URL2.4 Telegraaf Elektronische Media in cooperation with Weerbureau HWS. Radar weather images of the Netherlands:
http://meteo.telegraafnet.nl/radar/

URL2.5 Fresen, A. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in 3D:
http://www.schiphol.nl/maps/ 3D.htm

URL2.6 TIGER Mapping Service: The "Coast to Coast" Digital Map Database, a project sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of the Census:
http://tiger.census.gov/cgi-bin/mapsurfer

URL2.7 Digital Chart of the World Server, Penn State University Libraries:
http://www.maproom.psu.edu/dcw

URL2.8 Ordnance Survey Homepage, National Mapping Agency of the United Kingdom: http://www.ordsvy.gov.uk

URL3.1 Homepage of CERCO - Comité Européen des Responsables de la Cartographie Officielle: http://www.cerco.org

URL3.2 Smith, A. Evaluation of information sources (part of the Information Quality WWW Virtual Library), Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand:
http://www.vuw.ac.nz/~agsmith/evaln/evaln.htm

URL3.3 Smith, A. Selection criteria for Internet information resources: a poll of members of info-quality-l, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand:
http://www.vuw.ac.nz/~agsmith/evaln/poll.htm