NB: This is a guest post by Dorothy Sanders, co-founder, CEO and designer at Maptia.
Maps have a transformative power – they are a relentless source of visual creativity, especially in the travel industry.
They are one of the most intimate forms of infographic, and arguably the earliest form of standardised information design. At a fundamental level, maps tell us about what exists in the world, what matters in it, and where we belong relative to it.
For quite a number of years the familiar Google map has dominated the digital mapping space.
Currently, a whopping 93% of the top million sites and 89% of the top 10,000 sites on the internet with maps are using Google maps or the Google maps API.
Although many awesome mashups and services have been based around these mapping tools, it is pretty much a monoculture.
The good news is that there is change afoot in the digital mapping world and it can have a big impact in travel.
Maps in travel have been overlooked in the hype for social
It may surprise you to learn that within the travel sector, maps come top of the list of influential features for people planning or booking trips online.
In fact, interactive maps have a greater impact on travel decisions than traveller reviews, photos, and content on social networks – in that order, with less than 30% of people considering content from social networks influential, according to PhoCusWright.
During the continued rush to pursue the social within travel, the value of maps in the travel sector – both for inspirational and for utilitarian purposes – has arguably been somewhat neglected and undervalued.
Lots of travel sites already have maps, I hear you say! Yes, that’s true.
Travel related services are the second biggest users of Google maps and many sites do already include a map feature – it is after all a crucial context for travellers.
However, despite the fact that visual content on many travel websites is now laid out in slick Pinterest-style streams – TravelAvenue, Everplaces, Wanderfly – to name a few, when travel sites mash this content up onto a Google map the slick user experience often goes out the window.
As this type of map was originally designed for finding directions, the result is usually an overcrowded mashup with pins, dots, or tiny thumbnails.
New trends in mapping and the impact for travel
The ever-increasing wealth of big geo-social data – whether it is geo-tagged tweets on Twitter, check-ins on Foursquare, geo-tagged photos on Flickr, or the wealth of data our mobile devices can say about us – means that the algorithms we can apply and the multiple ways we can represent this arc of locational data are growing.
As a result, the forerunners of an exciting new breed of maps are starting to appear – maps that will be more seamlessly integrated with existing social networks and that will be visually stunning.
Many of these are still in mashup phase, layered on top of a Google type map with more functionality than beauty, but they are taking another step towards capturing the value locked into the wealth of geosocial data.
Services like Mapize do a pretty good job of building on top of Google maps and providing tools to build original and effective map layers to visualise geosocial data.
Let’s look a little closer – there are two distinct changes. Firstly, sites are starting to layer a wider variety of locational narratives, i.e. the purposes of maps are changing.
For instance, Gopogo and Pinwheel let users create, share and discover location-based stories, while Trendsmap shows you what people are talking about on Twitter in your neighbourhood in real-time.
Secondly, sites are beginning to experiment with different map interfaces. Citymaps has taken a step away from the Google Map-type interface and are pursuing an interesting new approach, replacing roads and place-names with the logos of services in cities.
These trends are just beginning to spread into the travel sector as sites start to explore different ways of using maps. Trippy released a new map integration in May, Hejorama maps travellers’ trips via tweets, and Everplaces displays a traveller’s recommendations.
From a map monoculture to visual storytelling
The changes that have begun in digital mapping can have a big impact in the travel sector, particularly as maps are so influential for online travel planners.
Even Google’s geospatial technologist, Ed Parsons, recently highlighted the importance of such a change:
"We don't want a monoculture where there is just one map of the world. There never has been; there never will be."
It is easy to forget that maps are not an objective visualisation of place, nor are they only utilitarian or for finding directions – in fact, they can also be a powerful form of visual storytelling – beautiful, exotic, wanderlust-inspiring maps that get us itching with the desire to head out and explore.
NB: This is a guest post by Dorothy Sanders, co-founder, CEO and designer at Maptia. Sanders and her co-founders – Jianshi Huang, Dean Fischer and Jonny Miller – are currently taking part in the Start Up Chile accelerator program in Santiago.
NB2:Globe image via Shutterstock.