Are online maps usable?

I ran across an old (July 07) blog entry on GISMO (Geographic Information Systems and Mapping) about map usability which led to a couple really interesting items:

  1. User-Centered Map Design from the Usability Professionals Association(UPA) points out that:

    Many people find map reading difficult. The problem lies in translating an exocentric bird’s-eye perspective of traditional maps into an egocentric perspective of the human vision. The experiment presented here suggests that electronic egocentric map displays using real-time 3-D and GPS positioning technology are more efficient, less erroneous, and more user-friendly than traditional static maps or electronic north-up or head-up maps.

    Map-reading involves a shift in perspective from what we’re used to. You look at most maps from above, yet most of us spend our days looking at the world from a sideways perspective. Why not make navigation systems that look the same as the world we live in? Of course it depends on the application. How would you show a population map or a land cover map from a human’s ground perspective?

  2. With Tools on Web, Amateurs Reshape Mapmaking–an article from the New York Times. This one I’d seen before, but it’s still interesting. It talks about the phenomena of the GeoWeb 2.0, which is enabling regular, every day folks with no geospatial training to make maps on the Web. With the wide availability of GPS units (and GPS on every cell phone–though many cell phone providers are still reluctant to let the user access their GPS coordinates) and simple map-building tools like Google Maps, the expertise level needed to build a map is no longer the private domain of GIS experts. In the article, Donald Cooke, chief scientist at Tele Atlas North America, states:

    “But you can also go hiking with your G.P.S. unit, and you can create a more accurate depiction of a trail than on a U.S.G.S. map.”

    Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media, a project affiliated with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the journalism school at the University of California in Berkeley, says:

    “The possibilities for doing amazing kinds of things, to tell stories or to help tell stories with maps, are just endless.”

So what does that mean?
The environment of the web is changing the way people interact with geospatial information, and it will continue to evolve towards more human-oriented solutions. Web users are becoming more and more used to:

  • Information delivered to their desktops. Users no longer have to go out looking for everything. They can subscribe to news and data feeds and get that info delivered right to them. That applies to location-aware data and maps just as much as it does to CNN news feeds.
  • Rich, interactive (AJAX) controls. They expect to be able to:

    • zoom in and out just by rolling the wheel on their mouse
    • pan by clicking and dragging
    • move sliders back and forth
    • draw boxes or polygons right on the map
    • enter a placename or address and zoom right to it
    • drag and drop map markers and other objects

  • Customization options for look and functionality. Users now have the power on many web pages to add or remove gadgets and change the look and feel of a page in a matter of seconds.
  • Direct manipulation. Users can easily add points and information directly to the maps they see on the web. They can pull in data from many sources and upload GPS points in real-time, from the field.
  • The ability to pull in and view/compare data (by dragging and dropping datasets) from more than one source:
    • without having to download or store anything on their own computer
    • without having to buy expensive, installed software

With the advent of Second Life, Google Earth, Virtual Earth and other virtual worlds, users now are even beginning to expect the ability to fly to their location and move the globe on a computer screen like a child moves a toy car or airplane.

Businesses, nonprofits, and government organizations today have to consider this new interactive paradigm and updated expectations of web users, which is very different than the paper maps of old. Those who can be innovative and deliver more human-oriented geospatial solutions will be successful. Those who stick with old, static models will be left in the dust.

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